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Feathered Quill Interview with J. R. Klein - The Ostermann House

FQ: In The Ostermann House, Michael discovers what appears to be a nonagram in their basement and others randomly appear throughout the story. Can you explain to potential readers what is the significance of a nonagram?

KLEIN: The nonagrams are the connection between Herman Ostermann, who once owned the house, and the power source that is focused on the property. The number nine, which is part of the nonagram itself and is a number that reappears many times in the book, has historical connections to the occult, the paranormal, and the supernatural. As the reader will see, the significance of those to the nonagrams becomes apparent at the end of the book.

FQ: It is often said that science and the paranormal don’t mix. As a person who has a PhD in Immunology, do you believe in the paranormal?

KLEIN: As a scientist with a PhD, I think that there are many things in the universe about which we know little. Some of these even border on seemingly paranormal events that may be connected in perfectly ordinary ways, though we don’t know how or why this is as yet. When I am not in the laboratory, it is fun to let my mind go and create alternate universes that come out in books like The Ostermann House.

FQ: Over the years you’ve written for many scholarly journals and magazines. How has the writing process been different for you now that you’ve been writing novels?

KLEIN: It is really quite different. In writing about science for scholarly journals, it is important to stick to what we know, to stick to the facts. The beauty, and the fun, of writing fiction is that you can let your mind wander, particularly when it comes to fantasy, sci-fi, or the paranormal. You can create your own world-view that straight science doesn’t permit.

FQ: Are any of your characters based on anyone in your life?

KLEIN: Probably all of my characters are drawn to some degree from various people I have known, though not from just one person. Often, a character in a book is an amalgam of these people. But then, too, the beauty of writing fiction is that you can go beyond what you have known and add personal features and characteristics that make a character become completely unique. It is like painting a picture of a scene in the city or the countryside and then adding or subtracting from it in order to give the new image a special and different essence.

FQ: Why did you choose to write a thriller novel primarily based on the paranormal?

KLEIN: The idea for the story came while my wife and I were traveling in central Texas from Houston where we lived. We had gone down a dirt road out in the country and came upon an old farmhouse. On the property was a barn and a pond and a small graveyard out on the back of the pasture. For some reason, an old abandoned school bus was out there as well. I incorporated all of those into the story. The house was on the outskirts of a small town that in the book became Krivac.


When I got home, I kept thinking about how perfect this would be as a setting for a thriller – something spooky and weird – all connected to the house, the property, and the town. The paranormal part grew naturally into to the book as events transpired. Having just published a book of literary fiction (Frankie Jones), I was looking for a different kind of a challenge. I have always enjoyed thrillers of all kinds.

FQ: Who are some of your favorite authors?

KLEIN: I like a range of authors. For horror, thrillers, and suspense, Stephen King and Dean Koontz are on the top of the list, of course. But I also love good literary fiction. Probably one of my favorite authors is Patrick Modiano. His work is almost surrealistic. It floats back and forth between the past and the present in the most elegant sort of way.

FQ: I really appreciate the cover design on The Ostermann House. Though it is simply a picture of the farmhouse depicted in the story, it gives readers a great sense of foreboding and creepiness that you feel throughout the book. Is this cover based on a real-life house?

KLEIN: Yes, it is very similar to the house we came across while we were traveling through central Texas. It was weather-worn but inhabited, and fairly-well kept up for its age. It looked like it had a multitude of stories, good and bad, hidden somewhere inside – the perfect place to begin the journey into the book.


Feathered Quill Interview with J. R. Klein - A DISTANT PAST, AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE

FQ:  How much of Blake is really you?


KLEIN:  Quite a bit, probably. I haven’t experienced the tremendous success as an author that he did; however, in other ways we are a lot alike. I tend to be quiet, somewhat reserved, preferring to watch from off stage rather than as a lead actor. I think, in general, my intuitions are good, as his were, and I am a pretty good listener.


FQ:  Have you ever experienced the kind or degree of “block” that Blake goes through?


KLEIN:  Occasionally on a small scale, though not to the point of full-out writer’s block. Frequently, I will get to a point in a book where I am not sure exactly how to proceed, and like most writers, I have those tormenting days when nothing seems to be working. Yet, all in all, I have managed to get through it…so far.


FQ:  In writing his book, Lenny seems to be operating intuitively based on happenings around him – is that the way any of your own books developed?


KLEIN:  Essentially all of them. Years ago when I started out, I thought I should write from an outline. It was an utter disaster; I have never been able to work from an outline. It might be a tried-and-true approach for some writers of fiction, but once I learned to let the story take me where it wanted to go, everything worked out fine. Which is not to say the words always flow easily and effortlessly. It is quite common for me to encounter many mental hurdles along the way while attempting to put the words on the page, sometimes even to the point of having to wait days until the story begins to flow again.


FQ:  You seem quite knowledgeable about surfing, also – is that part of your own past or present?


KLEIN:  Some, but not a great deal, other than that I lived for a while in Del Mar, California, very close to where the book is set. I did, however, spend a lot of time watching and studying surfers and surfing. I remember talking to them and having them explain the peace and tranquility one experiences out on the water early in the morning. They often likened it to a kind of meditation.


FQ:  A Distant Past…is essentially a hopeful story that shows how friends can help friends in times of need, directly and indirectly. Is that a theme that runs through your earlier books?


KLEIN:  It is certainly a component of one of my earlier books, Frankie Jones, a book that, curiously, also takes place in Del Mar and in other parts of Southern California. I think it’s a theme I am likely to stick with in future books…it resonates with me. 


FQ:  Do you, like Blake, have plans for the next creative endeavor?


KLEIN:  I have two completed manuscripts. One is in the suspense/thriller genre, more along the lines of my book, The Ostermann House. The other would probably fall into the category of literary fiction. I seem to move back and forth between literary and suspense. Each has its own form of satisfaction and challenge from a writing perspective.


FQ:  Lenny wants to write but doesn't know how, has never done so. He gets ideas for a plot from the people he's meeting and the conversations they have. Has this ever happened to you as a writer?


KLEIN:  Yes, many, many times. It’s always hard for me to construct a character out of whole cloth. Most are an amalgam of several people, and a multitude of situations and circumstances. If a memorable person or experience fits comfortably into the book, I am happy to incorporate parts. Yet, I never try to pull in too much from real life. It can become distracting because I start to feel as though I am writing non-fiction. The balance in this is important, I think.  


FQ:  Blake, by contrast knows how to write, and once he decides to start, he seems to know exactly what will come forth. Again, have you had that experience?


KLEIN:  Yes, to the degree that I know where I want the book to go based on what has been written so far. Nonetheless, it is perhaps interesting that I never know how a book will end until I arrive at the end, literally. In all three of my books, I had no idea what would be in the last chapter until I wrote it. As a book begins to take shape during the early stages, however, I generally develop a pretty good sense of where it is heading…all but for the final denouement, that is.


FQ:  Have you spent time in Mexican towns, in gringo bars like the one you vividly depict in your book?


KLEIN:  Quite a lot. Pretty much from top to bottom and side to side. Years ago when I was in graduate school, and very broke, I took off and traveled for many months through Mexico and Central America, spending less than five dollars a day for food, travel, and housing. It was a rare and unique experience, and it left me with a deep sense of what life is like there. I wrote a memoir of that time that I am hoping will be out in 2020.


FQ:  If there were a sequel, would Blake and Emelia get together?


KLEIN:  I haven’t given the idea of a sequel too much thought, though it would certainly be feasible. As for Thomas and Emelia hooking up. I considered it in the present book, and a former agent of mine who read the manuscript thought it would be a good idea. For some reason, I felt more comfortable holding to the theme of friendship. Life, however, is an evolving process, and almost anything can happen, as we all know.




FQ: What made you decide to write this memoir?


KLEIN: When I returned from my journey on the Gringo Trail in 1980, I had a diary in the form of three spiral notebooks filled with my thoughts of the trip. I turned this into a manuscript initially just to better flesh out the experiences. I still have the original three notebooks, tied together with string, sitting on a shelf in my office.


FQ: You had quite the experience during the 101 days you were traveling in search of meaning in your life. Would you do it again?

KLEIN:  Not in the same way, I suppose. It was the right approach back when I was more impulsive, and it did largely accomplish what I was after. However, it has always been my nature to explore my feelings and to seek answers to them. Today, I am able to do that in a number of ways, an important one of which is through writing. There is another reason I probably wouldn’t attempt a similar trip now, however. In 1980, life had not yet evolved into the digital era it is today. Instant communication did not exist. For the most part, I was totally out of touch with my family and everyone else in the US; they had no idea where I was at any given time. That made the journey more dangerous and more scary at times, yet oddly more exciting and meaningful.  


FQ: After you completed your quest and returned home, was there anything you regretted? 


KLEIN: Despite the ups and downs that came out in the book, the experience was a heart-warming one overall. I’d be hard-pressed to find anything I regretted.

FQ: Why did you choose to change your name while writing your memoir?


KLEIN: That’s a good question. When I originally wrote the book, I did so as a book of fiction, which of course was based heavily on my experiences. I kept the names of the people in the book as they were in my travels, apart from myself and the person who became Stefan in the book. When I realized that the book was truly a memoir in every way, it made sense to go in that direction. There are a number of examples in literature of how memoirs and biographies were converted totally over into fiction. Perhaps one of the most notable is On The Road by Jack Kerouac. In my case, after To Find was written, I felt more comfortable using a memoir format for a number of reasons. One was that—as they say—life is stranger than fiction. Were it a book of fiction, some might find various events preposterous and absurdly far-fetched: for example, the notion that it was possible to travel on less than five dollars a day even back in 1980, or my experiences at the Mayan temples.

FQ: Looking back over the years, how has your life changed since you took this trip in an attempt to find yourself?


KLEIN: The trip was transformative in many ways, both mentally and spiritually. It brought a sense of inner searching that I still continue to nourish.

FQ: There are numerous, wonderful characters you write about in your memoir. What happened to them? Do you still have contact with Stefan, Yvette or any other amigos you met on your travels through Mexico and Central America?


KLEIN: Stef and I eventually drifted apart, largely due to the different paths we have chosen in life, and to a certain extent because I have moved about quite a bit since 1980—after MIT, I took a position at the University of California in San Diego, then in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and now in Houston, Texas. Things between Yvette and myself didn’t work out. I attribute that to the fact that life on the Gringo Trail was a whole lot different from life in the ‘real world’—on a day to day basis, at least. I occasionally wonder what happened to Nash, who was a source of constant entertainment for us while we traveled. He was heading down to South America when Yvette and I got to Guatemala.

FQ: Do you have any tips or suggestions for aspiring writers who are considering writing a memoir?


KLEIN: Memoirs are very tricky. The big question for me was: Okay, this stuff is important to me, but who really gives a hoot about me or my life? It was a question that really troubled me for a long time—forty years, in fact, from the time the original manuscript was written until now when I published it. My wife read the manuscript almost twenty year ago and has been after me to publish it ever since. I’m glad I finally followed her advice.

FQ: As a seasoned author who has written in several different genres, do you feel that writing a memoir is effortless or more challenging than writing fiction? 


KLEIN: In writing fiction, it can be easier to keep the pace going. If I find that things are slowing down, there are lots of ways to rev up the momentum again. The challenge with a memoir is how much to put in, how much to leave out, and how to ensure that it is nothing more than a tally of life’s events.


FQ: Are you planning on writing a sequel? Perhaps a story of life after the Gringo trail?


KLEIN: Not yet. I haven’t mastered the art of sequel writing the way some writers have. Every time I try, the book ends up being a butchered version of the original.

FEathered Quill Interview with J. R. Klein - ALL THE BURNING ROOFTOPS

FQ: It is a pleasure and honor to interview you as you are an award-winning author of ten books, and so much more. This most recent novel tells the story of Armando Ortiz and the challenges he faces to become a small business owner. Were there unique challenges you faced in writing this particular story that were different from other stories you’ve written?


KLEIN: Thank you for the kind words. I suppose the primary challenge in writing the book had to do with making Armando’s experiences believable and accurate, given that I never worked as a laborer putting shingles on a roof in the middle of summer.


FQ: How did you do research for this book and then use that research to make the characters and plot come alive and be convincing?


KLEIN: I drew most of my research for the book from watching roofing-crews work. I also had knowledge of how good roofing companies treated their workers and how bad ones mistreated them, as detailed in various episodes of the book.  


FQ: In your view, should a writer write about what he knows or write about what he wants to learn?


KLEIN: Good question. Ultimately, some of it must come from what we know. But if we consider suspense and even horror, which I have occasionally dipped into in my own writing, I think it is safe to say that most of that comes from our imagination. So, all of it, when it comes to fiction, is pretty much an amalgam of both experience and imagination.  


FQ: In his thoughts on writing, James Baldwin explained that he aimed for sentences to be ‘as clean as a bone.’ Your writing reminds me of this because your writing is so clean and clear. What are your thoughts on achieving perfection with each sentence?


KLEIN: I am glad to hear you say that because I have strived to do that for many years. In my early days of writing, I fell victim of the assumption that I needed to embellish my work with plenty of adverbs and adjectives. I think (hope) I have now arrived at a compromise on that.


FQ: Your book helps a reader cultivate emotional intelligence regarding challenging topics such as immigration or exploitation of labor. Armando often reflects on wisdom his mother has taught him; for instance, Armando reminds his children that even working a menial job can offer lessons about life. How did you cultivate such emotional intelligence in your life to help you have sensitivity and wisdom to write a character like Armando? 


KLEIN: Certainly, from my parents, as was the case with Armando’s mother. When I had various jobs as a teenager, I was taught to do every task diligently no matter how menial the job was.


FQ: How do you make readers care about your characters and stories? I really found myself caring deeply for Armando and his family.


KLEIN: In a story like All The Burning Rooftops, I felt that compassion needed to be front and center. Armando is a good man, a descent man—not perfect but good. I wanted him to be like many fathers who want their children to have what they never had and are resigned to make the difficulties in their own lives secondary to that goal. Once I knew that would be a major theme of the book, much of the mood of the story fell into place.


FQ: What books make you cry? If not cry, what books make you think or feel in ways that expand your awareness or deepen your emotions? 


KLEIN: A beautiful book titled Grey Bees by Andrey Kurkov, a Ukrainian author. He lives in a war-torn village in which everyone has left except for the protagonist, Sergeyich, and his life-long friend, Pashka. Sergeyich makes his living raising bees, but he is forced to leave because the land around him is so saturated with gun powder from the bombs that the bee’s honey tastes like it. What a book! 


FQ: What is your favorite under-appreciated novel?


KLEIN: For this I am going to choose the famous French author, Patrick Modiano, the winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature. Since all of Modiano’s books were originally published in French, few people on this side of the Atlantic knew about his work until recently when it was translated. I have read almost all of his books. They tend to be short, usually about 120-140 pages. He invariably deals with obsessions of the past and how our mind deals (or doesn’t deal) with those.   


FQ: What do you hope is the most meaningful takeaway for readers of All the Burning Rooftops?   


KLEIN: That even the most menial work can be done with dignity, and that we need to have respect for people who work in those jobs.


FQ: ​What’s next for JR Klein?  You’ve been so busy in your writing career that I imagine you’ve already started working on your next book. 


KLEIN: Yes. I am about two-thirds finished with a novel, a book of contemporary literary fiction.

Thank you for your wonderful writing work and for taking time to talk to us. We look forward to your future books. 

Available in Paperback and  Kindle!  

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