Friday, March 09, 2012

Johnny's Books

A year ago a Facebook friend announced he would be holding a writer's workshop in Minneapolis. He and I--and many others--had built kind of a club-within-a-club on the social network, and I decided to take myself to one of the twin cities and enroll in his class. It was an adventure that meant the world to me, and I'll tell you why.

Jonathan Odell, charming and chatty as he is on Facebook, is a serious man and a first-rate novelist. His class inspired me to keep at the novel I was working on, and he agreed to be one of the first readers of my rough draft when I finished.

At the workshop he announced that his second book, The Healing, had been accepted by a major publisher and we could expect to see it in print by March of 2012. That seemed a long wait to me, but the time is here, and the book is out. I've been to the local bookstore in Fairhope and bought my copy, but first I wanted to read Jon's The View from Delphi, which preceded it. Jon will be talking about The Healing and the process of writing it at a book signing event at the Page & Palette March 15. I'll be there.

At the Minneapolis workshop, Jon told of growing up Johnny Johnson in Mississippi, conflicted and somewhat unhappy, and that he somehow wanted to be a writer in spite of the fact he had never been encouraged by his teachers or anyone else to pursue his creative side. He wanted to be a writer, but wasn't sure he could write. His first mentor was novelist Mary Gardner, who read his work and said, "This little boy in here is so burdened and victimized he doesn't even seem real. Were you like this as a child? Were you aware of yourself as a victim even then?" Jon said his revelation was that he was not--indeed he remembered himself as been a reasonably happy little kid, doing childish things like sneaking treasures out of the family's drawer and burying them in the back yard. "There," Mary said. "You have a start of a real character." She also said to him, "I don't know if you can write or not, but you have great material." From that insight, he was able to go back and rewrite, exploring what made his mother the kind of person she was (and is), and build a dynamic set of stories around his early childhood during the voter registration crisis period in Mississippi.

The View from Delphi has a little boy named Johnny in it, and one of the things Johnny does is steal things from grownups and bury them in the back yard (under the house, actually). It becomes a crucial part of the plot--and Johnny is both observer and actor in the ensemble of diverse characters in the book. I couldn't help picturing Johnny Johnson as the devilish little Johnny Graham, and I suspect I was right in doing so. It's a complicated, engrossing tale of interwoven lives--a black part of town and a white part of town--and the reader is tossed from one side to the other, never landing where he or she expected to go. I relived some of my own experiences as I read, and met a motley band of Mississippi folks on the journey. I loved every minute of it.

The Healing sits on the coffee table in the cottage I'm renting, and I'm raring to get into it before I take it to the reading for Jon to sign. He's left little Johnny far behind him, and if the early reviews of this book mean anything, his new name of Jonathan Odell will be one to conjure with for generations to come. I expect it will overturn a lot of clich├ęs about the South and be another great ride--led by one of the truly original minds of the region.


Cheryl A. said...

I'm LOVING Jon's book 'The Healing" and I already have recommended it to so many people. I also just recently finished "The View From Delphi" and was completely taken by the story. He's a wonderful and insightful writer.

Anonymous said...

i finally got my copy of The Healing today - and met Jonathan in the process. I'm always a bit fearful when meeting my "internet" friends - but, as usual, it proved to be a wonderful experience. Wish I could have spent more time visiting with him but, alas, he was there to work and sell books. Still it was a thrilling meeting and now I finally have a copy of his second book - Must start it tonight. (fred smith)

Mary Lois said...

The View from Delphi introduces such a feast of characters on both sides of the color line! Just when you want to see the old senator get his comeuppance the story focuses on the evil redneck sheriff and the assortment of maids and their white "ladies." Sometimes I laughed out loud, and some characters touched my heart and made me want to stand up with them. It's wonderful from beginning to end.

PJ Summers said...

I loved every word of "Delphi" and look forward to "Healing". There's nothing so powerful in literature as its ability to draw in the reader as if we were living witness to what unfolds. Jonathan does exactly that.