An Interview with John L. Parker, Jr.

Today we welcome, guest blogger Greg Crowther, to share an interview with John L. Parker, Jr.
 
By: Greg Crowther

As a young runner growing up in the 1980s, I got most of my inspirational reading from a small Florida publishing company called Cedarwinds. Cedarwinds was founded by a former miler and would-be novelist who, unable to convince existing publishers of the merits of his first manuscript, decided to print the darn thing himself ... and the rest is history.  Once a Runner became a cult classic and, eventually, a New York Times bestseller.  A sequel, Again to Carthage, appeared in 2007; the prequel Racing the Rain was released yesterday.  In anticipation and celebration of this latest book, I conducted an email interview with the author, John L. Parker, Jr., after meeting him at a very nice Fleet Feet Seattle event in May. I hope others find the exchange below an interesting addition to other Parker interviews that can be found online, such as those by Benjamin Cheever  and Gary Cohen
GJC: When you referred to yourself as a novelist at the Fleet Feet Seattle event I attended in May, it sounded weird to me because I think of you mostly as a nonfiction writer (and yes, I count your political speechwriting as nonfiction) who once wrote a novel in your spare time (and then eventually generated a sequel decades later). Am I giving short shrift to the novelist part of your resume? Is "novelist" a central part of your identity?

JLP: Until recently Harper Lee had only published one novel, and I've never had any problem calling the author of To Kill a Mockingbird a novelist. Now I've written three of the things, one of which has been in print for almost 40 years and been translated into eight or nine languages.

So yes, I think of myself as a novelist.

GJC: OK. If we go back to the birth of Once a Runner, how did you get started as a novelist?  Had you taken any creative writing classes?  Did you have a writing mentor?  Did friends give critical feedback on drafts?  Or were you mostly blazing your own path?

JLP: As an undergraduate, I was admitted into the advanced creative writing seminar at the University of Florida, led by Smith Kirkpatrick and Harry Crews, both published novelists. The writing program at UF had a little known but remarkable pedigree, having been influenced and guided at various times by the likes of Andrew Lytle, who founded the program, as well as Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and Robert Frost.

Anyway, I attended the weekly seminar for several years, even after I was in law school.

Once I started Once a Runner several years later, however, I was on my own. For better or worse, I felt my subject matter was too esoteric for outside advice to be of much help. Also, I really didn't know who I would have asked. Most of the book was written in North Carolina, where I was pretty isolated.

GJC: Do you remember absorbing any particularly important lessons from this writing seminar?  Did you produce any writing in that setting that gave a hint of things to come?

JLP: I learned a great deal in the program, though both Kirk and Harry would often say that they couldn't really "teach" anyone to write. They were there to try to guide us as we taught ourselves. So we met every Thursday night in building D in the old section of the UF campus, read each other’s stories out loud, and tried to figure it all out together.

From Kirk the most important thing I learned was that every story needs what he called "a backdrop." By that he meant that for a story to have real gravitas it needed to be played out in front of a larger canvas, even if that context is only hinted at. For instance, you could write a story in which a man and woman meet one evening at a friend's house and fall instantly in love. If the characters have any real depth, it could be an okay story even if they are completely isolated in time and space. But what if you find out that she is recovering from a suicide attempt and that he will be getting up at five the next morning to drop bombs on Frankfurt? A bare bones plot springs into three dimensions.

From Harry I learned, as he put it: "Every story is an 'action.'"  By that, he meant that something needed to happen. We were not into deconstructionist navel gazing in building D.

As for my own work in the course, I occasionally got a kind word from Smith or Harry for one of my stories, but then, I don't think anyone even got into that program unless Kirk or Harry thought you were capable of writing something publishable.

GJC: At the Fleet Feet event I attended, you emphasized that novels (yours and others') are rooted heavily in real-life people and events. You said that novel-writing is basically the construction of a narrative arc out of real-life components. (I am paraphrasing.) Can you tell us a bit more about how this construction process works for you? I'm partly wondering whether you tend to start with certain personal experiences and imagine how they could be arranged into a story, or whether you tend to start with a flight of fancy and then bring in relevant personal experiences as needed.

JLP: I usually start with real characters and/or events, and weave them into a narrative. In doing so, I do not feel constrained to describe the characters or events accurately, although many times the details may be fairly true to real life. Also, I don't feel limited to real chronologies, nor do I feel any compunction about blending two or three real people into one fictional character.

What comes out at the end of the process may not be recognizable to people who actually lived through the events that inspired the story, although they would surely recognize some of the details. The main point of my talk is that if you're reading a novel and you encounter highly unlikely situations, or truly outrageous characters, you'd better think twice before proclaiming that the author has way too active an imagination. Often those events or characters turn out to be the most factually based events or characters in the story. That was exactly the point Bob Shacochis was making to the radio interviewer that I mentioned in the talk.

GJC: You have encountered many skeptical reviews of Once a Runner and Again to Carthage. Which aspects of these books have drawn the loudest or most persistent howls of disbelief, in your estimation?  Quenton Cassidy's 60-quarters workout? Football coach Dick Doobey's utter stupidity?  The physical assault and hallucinations that occur during the Olympic Trials marathon?

JLP: In my talk I probably exaggerated the number of incredulous reactions those plot points have received, but I'd say the 60 quarter workout has been met with the most disbelief. Bill Rodgers told me it was the only part of Once a Runner he found unrealistic. If I had heard about it from someone out of the blue, I might not have believed it myself. But I in fact did it, in my junior year.

GJC: What prompted you to do that workout, anyway?  I'm guessing that it wasn't your coach's idea.

JLP: I almost did the workout by accident. I did the first 20 and didn't feel all that bad. Normally, that would have been the end of the workout. But I was training alone that day for some reason, and it occurred to me that if I could manage to finish another set of 20 quarters, it would be almost unheard of. After I finished the 40th, although I was truly done in, I immediately began to toy with the idea of one more set. By the time I finished the mile recovery jog, I had decided to try it.

I knew it was crazy, but at the same time, it was a thrilling kind of a challenge, just to finish an unprecedented workout like that.

My mentor and coach, the Olympian Jack Bacheler, was horrified when he heard what I'd done. He was completely opposed to "stunt" workouts like that, and for the most part I agree with him. I certainly don't recommend that young runners consider training this way. I was lucky I got away with it without any lasting damage.

GJC: So is it fair to say that this workout did not have quite the same significance to you as it does for Quenton Cassidy in Once a Runner? The workout struck me as arguably the climax of the novel, in which Quenton gives himself fully to his running and his coach and realizes his true capacity for self-punishment.

JLP: Yes, you could say that.

GJC: Many Once a Runner fans know that you tried to find a publisher for the book, couldn't, and wound up publishing it yourself in 1978 -- a full 25 years or so before the self-publishing industry really took off. How did you do it, in terms of logistics?  Did you buy a printing press and set it up in your basement?

JLP: No, but I set the type myself. In those days you set type on a phototypesetter, a huge machine that actually burned each letter onto a sheet of photographic paper that then had to be developed. It was a long, arduous process. Every line that had an error in it had to be re-set, then literally cut and pasted over the erroneous line. In fact, that's where the phrase "cut and paste" comes from.

I was lucky enough to have a friend who owned a graphic design shop, and he allowed me to work on the book after hours. I spent several weeks of all-nighters getting it done. It was one of the happiest times of my life.

We had a firm in Jacksonville do a press run of 5,000 copies, which I found out later was actually a pretty big first printing. The average first novel released by the big publishing houses in New York sell 3,000 copies on average.

As it turned out, that was just the first of many printings.

GJC: Both the world of publishing and the world of running have changed a lot since the 1970s. If you had been born in, say, 1980, and graduated from college in 2002 or so, with an athletic trajectory similar to what you had in the 1960s and '70s, do you think you would have published a Once a Runner-like book by now (2015)? Why or why not?

JLP: I have no idea if I personally would have done it, but surely someone would have. For one thing, traditional publishing houses are much more open to books about running than they were in the mid-70s, when the success of Jim Fixx's Complete Book of Running was a total surprise to them. For another thing, self-publishing is hundreds of times easier to do now that it was then. You have to remember, there were no personal computers then, no such thing as "desktop publishing," not to mention no Amazon or ebooks.

When you think about it, the odds against Once a Runner ever seeing the light of day, much less becoming something of a success story, were incredibly slim.

GJC: We talked at Fleet Feet Seattle about how your old rival Jack Nason was unhappy with the portrayal of his fictional counterpart Jack Nubbins in Once a Runner, and how this reaction surprised you (but later led you to pay tribute to him in Again to Carthage). Have other real people reacted to their Once a Runner or Again to Carthage characters in ways that surprised you (and that you are able to share)?

JLP: Jack Nason was one of the few important characters in the books who was portrayed almost exactly as he was in real life. Some old teammates were mentioned in passing in the books, but they were not fully developed characters and I haven't heard of anyone reacting negatively to being mentioned that way. The same goes for well known runners of the era, like Frank Shorter or Benji Durden, who appear pretty much as themselves. As far as I know, most of the guys were thrilled to be included. The high jumper Ron Jourdan used to call me several times a year, right up until his death recently. He was clearly the model for Ron "Spider" Gordon, the high jumper in Once a Runner, and nothing seemed to make him happier. He was the guy in the book who was sort of nonchalantly clearing 6-6 indoors on a sandy floor and a makeshift landing pit, stoned out of his mind. This was something I actually witnessed, more than once.

GJC: I'm sure you get asked this a lot, but I don't know the answer, so here goes. Why the three-decade delay between Once a Runner and its sequel, Again to Carthage?  Were you initially unsure that you wanted to do a sequel?  Were you just busy with work that paid better than novel-writing?  

JLP: After I finished Once a Runner, I assumed I would never write another novel about running. I had put everything I knew or felt about the subject into the book and couldn't imagine that I would ever have anything to add to that.

As I grew older, that perspective changed. I found myself thinking about Cassidy's life after his college years, and wondering what kinds of themes I might find there worthy of another novel. It took a number of years, but eventually it all began to come together in my head.

The idea for Racing the Rain came much more naturally. Most people would find my own childhood growing up in Florida somewhat out of the ordinary, and my early athletic career was certainly not the typical All American sports story. There seemed to be some material there. Additionally, the readership that had slowly grown around the other two books made me think there would be some interest in Quenton Cassidy's early years, the kind of childhood and adolescence that would make him into the person he became.

I wrote one sentence that I thought would be the opening line in the book. It ended up being placed later in the story, but the moment I wrote it I knew I could write the novel.

GJC: That sentence could be the basis for a fun reader contest, in which they have to guess which sentence it was. Anyway, you said at Fleet Feet that a lot of being a good writer is just noticing the interesting things going on around you. In writing Again to Carthage and Racing the Rain, you were able to draw upon many additional years of noticing things. Has your skill in doing the writing itself also improved since Once a Runner? If so, how did that affect Again to Carthage and/or Racing the Rain?

JLP: I hope I've become a better writer over the years, but that really is for others to judge.

GJC: I'm wondering what you can tell me about the titles of the books of the trilogy.  For example, each title follows the formula of: Important Word + Less Important Connecting Word + Important Word. Is that just a coincidence? Does that pattern have a rhythm that you like?

JLP: Apparently it does, though I hadn't really thought about it in that way.

Racing the Rain was first suggested by Susan Moldow, the head of Scribner, after she read the first part of the book. Of course she was exactly right. I had been calling it all kinds of things up until then. It was much later that I Googled it and found out there was a similar title for some popular doggie book (The Art of Racing in the Rain). I suggested changing mine slightly, to Rain Racer, but Scribner didn't want to change it at that point.

Once a Runner always seemed an apt title to me, based upon the traditional fairy tale's opening phrase "Once upon a time..." To me that said that this was a story about a runner, a novel rather than a how-to book. Such a book hardly existed at the time. Well, there was The Olympian, by Brian Glanville, and there was Alan Sillitoe’s Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, but that was about it.

Again to Carthage took me awhile to come up with. My tongue-in-cheek early working title for it was, of course, Twice a Runner. I toyed around with different ideas over the years while working on the book. I loved the "Again to Carthage" idea, but I had already used it years before in a magazine essay about athletic comebacks. It finally occurred to me that there was nothing to prevent me from using the same title for the novel, particularly since it was indeed a story about a comeback.

It paints a particularly evocative image for me, this line from Shakespeare, of Dido, the queen of Carthage, standing on the wild sea banks and pining for the return of the Trojan hero Aeneas, with whom the goddess Aphrodite--his mother--had caused her to fall in love.

GJC: Very interesting! In my original copy of Once a Runner, which I no longer have, there was a disclaimer along the lines of, "The author is aware of certain anachronisms in this book.... To those who have ferreted them out, a hearty 'well-done'!"  Would a similar message befit Again to Carthage? I'm thinking especially of the fact that Quenton winds up training for and competing in what seems to be the 1980 Olympic Marathon Trials, which, as you know, doesn't fit with other details indicating that he competed in a Montreal-like Olympics (1976) and then retired for quite a few years after that. You must have felt there were compelling reasons to make Quentin's goal the 1980 Trials rather than some other race. Maybe you wanted to be able to draw upon your intimate knowledge of the 1980 Trials? Maybe the United States' boycott of the 1980 Olympics made for a tidier story that could end at the Trials, without the necessity of an Olympic epilogue?  Am I getting warm?

JLP: Yes, that constrained time window has always been a problem. In some of the earlier editions of Once a Runner, the first chapter specifically refers to the Montreal Olympics. But beginning (at the very least--it may have changed even earlier) with the Scribner hardcover edition, it simply says "The Games," keeping it intentionally ambiguous.

According to Racing the Rain, Cassidy graduates high school in 1965. His senior year of college would therefore have been 1968-69. That would make Munich in 1972 the most likely candidate. That allows pretty much everything else to fit. He could have come back (while the Vietnam war was still going on) and finished law school by 1975, then been in his law practice for several years before hearing the siren call from Mount Olympus once more around 1978.

The one thing that doesn't work out with that scenario is that in Once a Runner Frank Shorter is referred to in 1969 as the marathon gold medalist, which wasn't the case until 1972. I guess that would be one of those little anachronisms that I mentioned, so a hearty "well done" to me!

But to answer your further question, yes, the plot of Again to Carthage was always going to pivot around the 1980 trials, because to me they perfectly represent the triumph of political idiocy over the higher ideals the Olympic Games have exemplified since the Classical era more than 2,000 years ago.

Carter's pathetic boycott simply punished our own athletes for something another government had done: invade Afghanistan. And, oh irony of ironies, guess who also ended up invading Afghanistan some 20 years later?

But to this day Carter doesn't appreciate what he did to our athletes. Whatever his other qualities, when it came to sports, Carter was always the equipment manager.

GJC: As you're pointing out, Again to Carthage continues Once a Runner's theme of incompetence, corruption, and/or stupidity on the part of bureaucrats and administrators.  Given that anti-authority streak, I want to ask you what you think of TAC's and USATF's governance of track and field in the United States over the past four decades or so?

JLP: I'm not really qualified to comment on any specifics; I simply don't keep up with that kind of thing. My intuition is that the politics of track and field in the U.S. have just gotten nastier and nastier over the years, and that the last people athletic officials have any concern for are the athletes. But that is based on just my own superficial impressions and what little I can glean from news accounts and from friends who are closer to the situation than I am.

The critique implicit in the three books is really based on my own personal experience with the athletic department at the University of Florida many years ago, as well as my general impression of the kinds of people who like to run things in this country, athletics included. And, if you want to know what they are like, just try to remember the people who ran student government in your high school.

GJC: So Racing the Rain also includes some administrative villains?  I'm imagining, say, an assistant principal who wants to expel Cassidy for missing class to compete at a big meet.

JLP: Actually, a lot of this book is about bad coaching more than bad administering.

But a further complication late in the story is Cassidy's mentor's possible connection to a double murder. The mentor, by the way, is a complete wild man who lives off the land far away from civilization and is very closely modeled after a real historical figure. And the double murder was based on a historical crime as well.

GJC: I look forward to reading about that! OK, last question. In Again to Carthage, Quenton explains the fulfillment of serious running: "When you’re a competitive runner in training you are constantly in a process of ascending.... It is actually possible to be living for years in a state of constant betterment. To consider that you are better today than you were yesterday or a year ago, and that you will be better still tomorrow or next week or at tournament time your senior year. That if you’re doing it right you are an organism constantly evolving toward an agreed-upon approximation of excellence. Wouldn’t that be at least one definition of a spiritual state?"  My question is, do you think Quenton can feel as happy and fulfilled after retiring from serious running as he did pre-retirement?  Is there anything that can replace running in getting him to that "spiritual state"?

JLP: That passage really only pertains to someone still in their youth. After a certain point in your life, no matter how much you may strive, you can never again hope to be in that "process of ascending" he talks about in that letter.

Your question is actually dealt with somewhat in Racing the Rain. In a passage that discusses Cassidy's affinity for the waters he grows up around, the ocean and the rivers, in addition to the rest of the natural world he is surrounded by, the narrator hints that Cassidy will find many forms of fulfillment in his life, that running, diving, paddling through that world is perhaps the most fulfilling way to relate to it, both during his youth and afterward.

GJC: Thank you for the interview, John, and good luck with the release of Racing the Rain!


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