Friday, March 20, 2015

Author Spotlight: John Cunningham

John Cunningham's beard once traveled back in time to challenge Aaron Burr to a duel. He declined. A writer since elementary school, John earned his M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Lindenwood University in 2011. His short fiction appears in the Missouri Writer's Guild's "Storm Country" anthology published by Mozark Press, where it was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He lives in St. Louis with his lazy Beagle, Cloey, where he works tirelessly to create the Ultimate Taco Recipe.


Broken Idols

The perfect rental house. A Mecca of debauchery for John Quinn and his three friends to live out their days as misfits and social exiles, and at $600 per month, it's a steal! When their war on societal convention pits them against the deeply established neighborhood criminal element, however, as well as a gang of miscreants with short tempers and aluminum baseball bats, the foursome quickly finds itself on the radar of the ubiquitous Officer Shannon Mitchell, a bully of a policeman who just happens to be the landlord. Against this backdrop of escalating violence, John must find a way to make peace with his ever-irritable adversaries and survive the battle of wills with Officer Mitchell if he hopes to win the girl and endure his roommates to keep the dream of the perfect rental alive. 

Your work has been compared to books like Catcher in the Rye. Did J.D. Salinger influence you at all in your writing? 

 Broken Idols is my Catcher in the Rye. Salinger epitomizes the coming of age story in his work, and I used it as a standard of measure, doing my best to incorporate some of the angst and disenfranchisement of Holden Caulfield. Though it may be arrogant, I’ve always wanted a reader to immediately associate the two works.

Tell us about your debut novel "Broken Idols".

Broken Idols is a coming of age story in a time without any true rites of passage. It explores what it means to find one’s place in the world, and what, if anything, that has to do with happiness. The idols that the title speaks of are the narrator’s dreams of a stable life, idylls that come into question continuously as his exposure to the “bigger picture” grows. Reduced to brass tacks, Broken Idols is a story about love, loss, society, and beer.

 Who is your favorite character in the book?

My favorite character would probably be Rudy Morris, the sagely advisor to the narrator. I had the most fun writing him. With the main cast, the characterizations were almost rigid, but Rudy was an opportunity to be free. He didn’t fit into any particular place, or any particular side, and his motivations were purely his own. He’s everything a sage, albeit a faulty one, should be: wise but not preachy, experienced but not flamboyant, motivated, empathetic, and, most importantly, flawed.


What obstacles did you have to overcome, if any, to write this book?

The events in Broken Idols are based, at least in part, on a true story. My biggest fear, and quite a challenge, was to keep this from being a literary “high five” to those involved. I believe a pitfall of many stories of this type is to write a novel, sitcom, movie, you name it, lauding the exploits of a group of partiers with no real world conflicts and no takeaway. The absolute most important aspect of this work was that it have a soul.  

Tell us about your furry sidekick in your author photo.

That demon-eyed dog is Cloey the Wonder Beagle. She’s found her way into many of my works in one incarnation or another, so I thought it only fair to include her in my author pic.

How did you discover that you were a writer?

If the answer to this question ever lacks mention of a wonderful or influential teacher, it’s incomplete. I was fortunate enough to have many.  In elementary school, I had the opportunity to take short stories that I’d worked on and have my teachers “publish” it, meaning they typed it out and brought it together with plastic binding. I still remember my very first. It was titled “Johnny the Shark” and I even illustrated it. All through primary and secondary school, there were teachers like that. History teachers that endured prose-like essays and thirty page pieces of crap posing as Halloween short stories. I have the utmost respect for teachers and would never have finished my novel without their knowledge and encouragement.

What is your favorite genre to read? Some favorite books?

 I love most genres, but I have a special place in my heart for sci-fi/fantasy. It’s my guilty pleasure, I suppose. Epic quests, larger than life characters, fantastical feats, magic and swords, all are near and dear to my heart. Choosing a favorite is a tall task indeed, but I think I’ll have to go with The Death Gate Cycle by Margaret Weiss & Tracy Hickman. This series of seven books is unequalled in world building, and the characters and story itself is as entertaining as it is timeless.

What makes a book worth writing?

If a writer wants to work on a novel about eating a tuna sandwich, then go for it! Finding a readership may be tough, but art isn’t an Excel spreadsheet. It’s an act of creation. If there is no love in that creation, it shows. For me, the only real criterion for making a book worth writing is an insatiable idea. An idea that’s there in the morning and hasn’t gone away two weeks later when seventy others have come and died the death of cassette tapes. An idea that makes you excited to write, to run to the notepad or computer and work feverishly to get it all out. 

Any special way you come up with your ideas or break writer's block?     

 I do have the usual inspirations—people I know, characters I’ve read, that sort of thing—but the bulk of my ideas just appear without notice. It’ll come in the form of an awesome title, or a single line, or even a string of dialogue. Sometimes it’s just a “what if a, then b…” sort of thing. Asking why really helps when ideas get thin. Once I have something to work with, I just build.  To combat writer's block I take a shower, plant tomatoes, sleep, anything to take my mind off of that devil blank page. Then, I free associate. Mental vomit is some of the best stuff. The most important thing I’ve found, though, is to hold on to all of it. Write down anything and keep it, even the stuff that seems too stupid to actually come to fruition. The events I based Broken Idols on took place nearly fifteen years ago, and I’ve been keeping notes and ideas for the entire time.

What do you hope readers will take away from "Broken Idols"?

The topic of race is an important one in my book. Broken Idols explores both overt and subtle means of racism and the harmful effects labeling can have on a person and a community. My hope is that readers will realize that life isn’t a black thing or a white thing. People are people, and ultimately, it’s not about a stereotype passed down from parents, but who someone is on a fundamental level—their values, traits, actions—that serves as a true measure. 

 Cool Ranch Doritos or Nacho Cheese?

  Nacho Cheese!

What can we expect from you in the future?

 A lot. I’ve currently got a serial blog I’m working on detailing the exploits of an everyman and his dog as they try to navigate strange and magical lands. Also, I’ve started brainstorming and preliminary writing on my next novel, which, with my love for the Harry Hole series, will be a thrasher-mystery in that vein. 

Broken Idols is now available on Amazon, B&, and Kindle. You can follow John on Facebook and check out his blog: The Neurotic Introvert 

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