Today I had the pleasure of interviewing a marine turned author; J. Manuel. With his first book, From Filth & Mud, out and a second on the way, J. is definitely an author to look out for. Read the interview below.
Q: How long have you been writing? Why did you start?
A: I’ve been writing since as far back as I can remember. I liked letters, and loved tracing them over and over again as a little kid. I then progressed naturally to words. I wrote my first book when I was ten years old on an old typewriter that my dad had salvaged from his job at the factory where he worked as a welder. I loved hammering away at those keys. There was something cool sounding about the slap of the little hammers as they punched the ribbon into the paper. The book was called “The Guardians”, and it was about two crime-fighting heroes in Batman-esque costumes. DC would have definitely had a solid copyright infringement case against me.
I can’t say why I started writing. It’s just something that I’ve always done, like talking. I like to talk a lot. It’s as if every thought that I have has to come out somehow either through my mouth or my hands. Writing is just the medium I use to refine the randomness that streams out of my mouth.
Q: What inspires your writing? Do you have a muse?
A: The natural world inspires my writing more than anything. I’m at peace in nature, and when I’m at peace my mind is clear enough for me to start to pick out all of the voices, stories, and ideas that are constantly playing at full volume in my head. There are times though when I’m under immense stress that some of the most powerful of those stories come bursting through in very emotional and unrefined forms. The chaos sometimes gives birth to good stories so I’m starting to get a handle on just letting them crash through.
Q: Does the time you spent in the Marines influence your writing? If so, in what ways?
A: Absolutely. My time as a Marine Infantryman made me realize how pretty insignificant I am. I enlisted as a seventeen-year-old, skinny, nerdy kid who wanted to leave home, and who thought pretty highly of himself. Once I set foot on Parris Island, I realized how mistaken I was about everything. The biggest influence however, came during 2003 when my unit was deployed overseas. My detachment ended up patrolling the waters of the Shatt Al Arab, in the Euphrates River delta in Um Qasr and Az Zubayr, Iraq. There I was, twenty years old, in body-armor carrying my M249 SAW light machinegun, in 120 degree heat, drinking hot water from my CamelBak, looking into the murky, polluted water of the Euphrates, cursing every choice I’d ever made, and generally hating life, when it struck me. I was navigating the life-giving waters of Genesis. Somewhere upriver was the Garden of Eden, and then I started to laugh. What a cruel joke.
My writing reflects this kind of irony. The first drafts of my work tend to be pretty morose, sometimes to the point where I reread it, and I have to remind myself that life isn’t all that bad. I do shirk from happy endings in the traditional sense. Being alive is sometimes good enough for some of my characters, but death can provide its own brand of comfort. I’m not a fatalist mind you. There is beauty in struggle.
Q: Tell me about your novel, From Filth & Mud. What was the original idea behind it?
A: From Filth & Mud is a project that was ten years in the making. It is the story of Jacob Harrington, a once proud Marine whose glory days are behind him. Jacob now finds himself battling his demons and it’s taking a toll on his family. Should he exit stage left? Just as he teeters on the precipice, he fatefully runs into his old war-buddy who comes offering salvation. How’s about a job as a private military contractor? Jacob relishes the opportunity for renewed purpose, and as he is about to redeem his lost dignity, his world comes crashing down around him.
Meanwhile thousands of miles away in sunny Silicon Valley, a young research scientist toils fruitlessly, but suddenly after a myriad of failures, eureka! Dr. Emmanuel Monte-Alban has created a cure for the inevitable scourge of humanity, a cure that will also save Jacob’s son. This cure may prove to be deadly effective, and in the hands of his employer, BioSyn, it most certainly will. While the young doctor is pressed into perfecting his creation’s effectiveness, a few competing sovereign interests uncover his work. Could his creation be weaponized? Enter the Dragon, the Eagle, and the Bear. Oh my!
When the doctor disappears, Jacob is called to lead a highly-skilled team of mercenaries to find him and his cure. There is one catch. Jacob must return to the site of his spiritual death, Basrah, Iraq in a quest for redemption. No outcome is certain, but the fate of his salvation, his son’s, and perhaps the world’s hangs in the balance. Let’s hope Jacob is not found wanting.
I began writing the first few pages back in 2005. I was a student at Connecticut College then, majoring in English Literature with a concentration in creative writing which is about as far from Marine Infantryman as you can get. That was also the time when I was suffering from a powerful bout of depression. I was honorably discharged from my unit the year before, and I had still not adjusted to life back home after being deployed for a year. I saw the story that would turn into From Filth & Mud as a way to give tangible life to the tumult that was in my mind, and so I began to put words to paper. Then life got in the way, and I just stopped writing. I guess I convinced myself that I had to get serious about my life, but I never forgot the story. I graduated with my English degree. There were no job prospects so naturally law school seemed like a good idea. Finally, last year, after avoiding the story for so long, I decided that I couldn’t ignore the urge to return to the story. I decided to go for it. I squirreled away every spare minute at night and weekends to give life to the story that I had begun a decade ago.
Q: What was the most challenging part of publishing From Filth & Mud? Is there anything you wish you had done differently?
A: Everything about publishing the novel was challenging, but if I had to pick one thing that was the most challenging it would be the editing. I did not realize how rough the first run of my manuscript was until I began to reread it. Four rounds of editing later, and I was still dismayed at just how unpolished it was. The problem came from the fact that I wrote the story as it came to me, and without a good writing program like Scrivener. I ended up cutting about 30,000 words and deleting several characters, some who I had fallen in love with, but who just did not fit into the novel. If I had the opportunity, I would have written the novel with an eye toward the editing process. I have taken this as a valuable learning experience, and it has benefited my writing of Paper Tigers.
Q: If you could be a character in any book except your own, who would you be and why?
A: I would be the Time Traveler from H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. This was the first book that I read that made me realize that the world could be full of wonders, and that it could certainly be much more interesting than what my government housing neighborhood, (the projects), had to offer. I also really liked that the protagonist of the story was a scientist who was not only a theorist, but an engineer, and an adventurer. I was a Bill Nye kind of kid, and so this story was right up my alley.
Q: What writing projects are you working on now? What can you tell me about them?
A: I am working on my second novel Paper Tigers. It is a legal thriller with a heavy dose of science and science fiction. It takes place in the same universe as From Filth & Mud, and some characters will be crossing over from where they left off in the first novel. I haven’t fully flushed-out the extent of their mixing into the Paper Tigers storyline. Paper Tigers is not a sequel to From Filth & Mud, and can be read without prior knowledge of the first novel. As with From Filth & Mud, there will be plenty of action and hard science fiction. Think of it as The Firm meets Sphere with a smattering of Call of Duty gunplay.
Q: Do you have any ‘writing rituals’ or things you find yourself doing while you write?
A: Who doesn’t? I love to have coffee while I write. I do a lot of my fun writing at Starbucks or Barnes and Noble. When I need to get serious, and have to work through some trouble spots, I have to be home, usually talking aloud to myself while pacing in circles like a madman. For really tough writer’s block however, I go to my temple; the jiu jitsu mats. There, at Marcio Cruz Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Academy, I find clarity of mind in the pure exhaustion that comes from fending-off a training partner who is trying to break my limbs, or trying to choke me unconscious.
Q: How much ‘grunt work’ goes into your writing?
A: I would characterize ninety percent of writing as grunt work. I didn’t ever think so until I published From Filth & Mud. Writing a novel is work, and grunt work is the only kind that counts. Sure stream of consciousness writing is fun, but mine is often such emotional dribble that it is hardly legible. It takes serious work to craft my piles into something a reader would want to read. Then again, I was a grunt so I’d say that I’m kind of biased.
Q: What is something you want the world to know?
A: I am a big believer that art in all forms can be a great vehicle to foment positive change. I also believe that art has a duty to better humanity which is why I am donating 50% of the proceeds from the sale of From Filth & Mud to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. I plan on making charity a big part of my work, and I will be doing so for every novel that I publish in the future as well.
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