Author Interview: C. John Coombes
CLAUS: A Christmas Incarnation, Volume One, The Child, is a 650 page work that includes some illustrations, poems, and songs, also by the author. The ebook is an affordable version of the original custom ordered hardcover book.
1854. Elizabeth Dennison, a now elderly woman, awaits the arrival of a long lost acquaintance. The meeting, initially dreaded as much as desired, fortunately rekindles an old friendship. It is in this reunion, a passing of memories and knowledge, that the guest requests specific details of Elizabeth's life.
So begins a story during the early 1800's, days after Elizabeth Dennison is removed from her home and sickly mother to be cared for by the wealthy Claussen Family. A favor for which, in return, she is to provide service as a maiden servant.
At a young age, Elizabeth faces a wary relationship with the Claussens and her new surroundings. Most of all, she is both frightened and mesmerized by Christopher Claussen, a powerful man and husband to Lady Rebecca. It is this relationship that ends up sweeping Elizabeth away from her home in Scandinavia to battle the perils of a voyage across an ocean, and a life on the American frontier.
Elizabeth comes to believe that Christopher holds sway not only over her life, but the world as a whole in something more than a natural way. He is god-like in her eyes and becomes very much the focus of her fragile childhood years.
Volume one is a fulfilling read unto itself without the need for further reading. It is a saga rich with ambiance, details of the era, and characters that are as real as life. If you desire to be swept away with Elizabeth on a journey through time and emotion then you will not regret this story.
Born in San Francisco, California, raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Father was a commercial artist and provided the environment for artistic expression at a very early age. Attended Kendall School of Design and entered into the Army during the Viet Nam War as an illustrator. Left the commercial art field to pursue other opportunities.
Married with two daughters. Currently semi-retired. Replaced art with writing for pleasure. No famous or wealthy relatives. Typical kid grown to become happy husband and father. Average American Joe in every respect other than creative obsessions.
When did you decide to start writing?
I don’t think it is so much a question of when as why. My father was a commercial artist and art was the environment I was born into. In the sixth grade my parents and I were required to attend a meeting with the principal and teacher of my school to discuss my refusal to tell the truth about three illustrations I supposedly could not possibly have drawn. My father felt pretty proud knowing he had seen me draw the pieces. I bring this up because creative people are driven to produce and the venue may be writing or art, or sewing a dress, making a soup. I expressed myself in art while writing was something on the outskirt of my awareness.
I starting writing poetry (I use that term loosely) in my later teens when I began to have more emotional contemplations. I remember working a summer job in close proximity of a girl a few years older than me in the art department of a major corporation while I attended design school. I had a crush on her and in conversation discovered she wrote poetry. She was pleased to hear that I did as well, and suggested we swap some of our pieces. Kinda of a “I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours.”
Well, when she showed me hers, I was horrified. I had never seen such incredible use of the language. The worst part was that I already gave her my piece of crap and there was no getting it back. I suffered over that humiliation to such an extent that I never wrote another line seen by a mortal for twenty years. Until one soulful day.
I had a friend at work who was involved in a tragic accident. He was driving with three of his children when struck broadside by another car. His son died in his arms while he stood at the side of the road. His daughter was in a coma and died shortly thereafter. The tragedy kept him out of work for a year, and in counseling, as he struggled to make sense of God and life. It cost him his marriage.
Then came the day I heard he was returning to work. I considered how I would have to face this man and express my sorrow knowing full well that the words “I’m sorry” just don’t cut it when a father’s son dies in his arms and his entire world has since collapsed. I suspect it was the emotion welling up inside that set me to sitting down and putting my thoughts onto paper.
I wrote a poem titled ‘Souls of Innocence” and I gave it to him framed. It still hangs in his hallway where it has been for many, many years. That poem has gone out to a number of grieving parents. Just a few weeks ago a couple who were visiting me asked if they might have a copy to present to friends who had also lost a child.
Something about writing that poem opened a floodgate of pent up creativity. It made little difference to me if the stuff was good or not as long as it relieved my creative pressure. I also quickly discovered that working with art was difficult with children underfoot due to the mess and especially the distraction. Writing on the other hand, was as simple as flipping a switch, creating a world, flipping it again to shut the door on that world until the following day. When I returned, the characters were all still there waiting for me. Nobody had suddenly dried out. It was clear to me that I could paint with words far more efficiently than I could with pigment. In fact, I can’t think of anything more efficient for creative release except for maybe singing.
So, it wasn’t so much of when as why.
What is your genre and why did you decide to write a novel in it?
I don’t have a genre. I have a mind that does not easily shut down. This tends to make me a light sleeper and a prolific dreamer. My dreams have always been extremely detailed. I think nothing of seeing the bricks in a wall. I have cities that I return to and drive streets I know only in my dreams. There are certain high rise hotels that I repeatedly go to. It was just such a dream that presented a vision about Christmas that stayed with me for a long time. For each of three Christmas dinners, I attempted to convey this dream to a family that looked at me like I was just plain nuts.
I understood that you “just had to be there”. I gave up on describing the vision, but decided to put it on paper to save me from forgetting it. I decided to put it into the form of a very short, forty-page something, for my daughters.
I clearly remember sitting down at the keyboard and saying aloud. “All right, where to begin. Mmmm, I’m thinkin’ snow. Mmmm, Sweden. Yes! All right, I need a time. I think maybe like early 1800’s, Copperfield kind of a thing. Okay, Sweden, 1830.” I stared at the blank monitor and said the most profound blurt ever. “What the F**K do I know about Sweden in the early 1800’s.”
I reached for some of my reference books. It is now many years later, I am at about 2100 pages and still reaching for reference books.
Were you worried about the word count of your work?
Not at all. I am free of that curse because I never wrote with the idea of selling my work. I never even considered it. I write for creative release or else I get very, very irritable. Besides once I passed about two hundred pages, I penned my own demise.
Do you have any writing quirks and what are they?
Only the same quirks I live with day to day. My friends say I am anal--a perfectionist. I don’t see it, but I do believe in doing something once and doing it well. So I get very concerned about being reasonably accurate in my descriptions. A good example of this would be when I made my first editing pass on volume one. Much of that book takes place on a large three-masted sailing ship. I studied all the terms in a two hundred plus nautical dictionary to make sure I did my best to describe everything on that ship best I could. Some people will call that anal. I would call it close.
If you can describe your novel in one word, what would it be and why?
Rich. Because although many readers like lots of dialogue to keep a story moving forward, I believe dialogue without description is like a house that’s not a home. I love description but am very sensitive about when to ease up. At times I push it to the limit, but I am allowed to go to the limit. Dialogue delivers emotion but not ambiance.
How did you decide on the title and what does it mean?
Well…it’s a Christmas story. The connection is very subtle.
What do you hope your readers will get out of reading your novel?
Total believable immersion into a world that is so real they can talk to me about the characters as if they all had just suppered. Most of my readers have read the books more than once. I can’t think of higher praise. They might read the first time to get something back for their money, but the second and third are truly for love of it.
Tell us a little about your road to publication.
First of all, publication was never a consideration. I started out writing the novel for my daughters. It was only after I had developed the first volume that things changed. I used to slip in a marina where I would walk down the dock ten times a day and see the gal reading at every pass. Finally, I stopped one day and asked her if she would mind critiquing a manuscript that I had written. I told her that I was in no way a writer, that I had never been trained to write, couldn’t remember if I had passed English in high school or not. It would be obvious, but this was about the story and not about the grammar. I told her I had been trained to take crushing critiques and that she would have to be brutal. I asked if she would keep in touch while she read and especially right afterward before the feeling slipped away. She was very willing to do the reading, not so much to blister me.
She finished the book but I never heard from her. I thought the worse. I ran into her husband and he said Nancy didn’t get back to you because she was crying so hard she needed a couple of days to recoup. I just stared at him. Nancy came looking for me the next day and said, “I don’t care what it cost, I want a copy of that book. I want a copy of that book.”
I said fine, I would photocopy it for her. Little did I realize the price to photocopy was over two hundred dollars. For that price I could make a custom book, which I did. What I didn’t anticipate was thirty or forty other people wanting their own numbered and signed book. So I ended up making something like fifty individual books, numbered and signed, with the names of the presentor and presentee printed as Christmas books of old. They were each done individually and at that time cost about sixty-five dollars each.
I couldn’t sell an ebook if my life depended on it, but I have had a hundred people beg me to print up another limited number of the hardcovers knowing full well that those books will cost them a hundred bucks each.
Between my understanding that publishers will never touch me as an unknown with such a long novel, and having so many people asking for a means of reading the story, I turned to ebooks. My problem there was the way my writing came to a stop in the third volume. This was due to the time it took me to learn applications for page layout, computer illustration, PDF formatting, HTML conversions, website development, just to name a fraction of support activities that I undertook in order to make the work public. I enjoyed learning all of it, but it cost me dearly in terms of actual writing.
What advice can you give other aspiring authors out there?
Because of my situation, what I have to say is irrelevant. But what I say is simple. I say only one thing, and one thing only, over and over…….write for the pleasure of writing. To write for expectation only ends in certain death by heartbreak and frustration.
I often say that Madonna could break a pencil on a piece of paper and get a hundred bucks for it. I could paint a portrait worth a thousand and be lucky to trade it for Madonna’s broken pencil.
I would like to take this time to thank CJ for giving me the chance to interview him. It's been a pleasure. And dear reader, you can visit CJ's site here to learn more about this enigmatic author.