Surly Questions: J. Birch

J. BirchHey there! Haven’t seen you in awhile! Where have I been? Nevermind! This is not about me! It’s time for another round of Surly Questions, this time with J. Birch, author of Gasher Creek

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I was eleven. I had watched the Garfield special “Babes and Bullets” and wondered if I could write my own PI mystery. It was about ten pages long. After that, I was hooked.

Tell us about Gasher Creek.

Here’s the back cover blurb:

Jack Devlin awakes with a shotgun pointed at his face. Sally, a whore, lay dead beside him. Jack remembers nothing of the previous night; could he really have killed her? And if so, why?

He has questions, but some folks in the town of Gasher Creek don’t want them answered. And after a lynch mob storms the jail, he manages to escape into the vast and empty prairie. Now he has no food, no water, and no horse.

And he’s not alone.

Back in Gasher Creek, Sheriff Tom Tracker is certain Devlin is the murderer. But without a confession, he’ll need evidence. What he finds is unlike anything he’s ever seen before. If Devlin is guilty, he isn’t the simple odd jobs man everyone thinks he is. Instead, he’s something much more calculating and dangerous.

What books or media inspired Gasher Creek?

Gasher Creek was, oddly enough, inspired by the movie “Brokeback Mountain”. At the time, everyone was caught up in labeling it the “gay cowboy movie”, but I saw it as a movie about loneliness and how loneliness can destroy lives. So I decided to write a western about loneliness. As it evolved, it became a book about guilt, and that guilt produced a mystery plotline. GC was also inspired by my love for early Elmore Leonard westerns. Although he’s primarily known today as a crime writer, he wrote some amazing westerns. Ross McDonald and Dashiell Hammett mysteries were also an inspiration. Readers will also spot hints of Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” and David Milch’s “Deadwood” TV series.

Art by Tracy McCusker.
Art by Tracy McCusker.

What does your typical writing day look like?

My typical writing day is two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening. I try to stick to this routine every day, even on holidays.

When do you know a book is done?

When I’m burnt out and I can’t write another word and I wish the horrible thing would just go away, then I do one more draft. And then it’s done.

What has been the most rewarding thing about connecting with  other writers through social media?

The opportunity to meet them! None of my friends are novel writers, nor are any of my family members. So, before Twitter, it was like writing in a vacuum. Now, thanks to Twitter, I can communicate with other people who are also crazy.
Social media has also given me a chance to cheer on other writers. Writing is a lonely profession, and often times we are our own cheerleaders (if we cheer at all, and most of us don’t). So Twitter has given me the opportunity to be a voice in the wilderness for other writers. And I enjoy doing it. It’s shocking how little encouragement we give each other. But it makes a huge difference.\

What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever received?

“What’s simple is truth.”
This is a quote by Brenda Ueland from her 1938 book “If You Want to Write”. The entire book is a gold mine of great advice, but that one line has always stuck with me. If you tell the truth of what you “see” in any given scene, then you won’t fall into the endless “purple prose” that clogs up so much amateur (and sometimes professional) fiction. Write what you see, and the reader will understand. Write lines like “He looked at her as if his heart were on fire with sapphire wings of passion” and it will only confuse them. And do you really see sapphire wings of passion? Really? Or are you just trying to sound “literary”. Don’t. Write honestly, and you’ll do two things: you’ll avoid cliché, and you won’t give your readers a bunch of sickly sweet drivel. Don’t lie to them, and don’t lie to yourself.

Tell us about your next book.

It’s a two part science fiction series, and that’s all I’ll say about it. For now.

Who inspires you?

For me it’s more of a what than a who. Music and movies have had a huge impact on my writing. Music taught me rhythm, and because of rhythm, I can edit. I tend to cut out what doesn’t fit into the groove of a scene. I’m not sure if this musical approach is common among writers, but it’s what works for me.

Movies taught me the power of “showing” rather than “telling”. So much character motivation can be shown through body language and dialogue, so that’s what I’ve always relied upon. Big blocks of internal narrative have always bored me to tears.

As for writers who’ve inspired me: Elmore Leonard and Roddy Doyle taught me how to write dialogue. JK Rowling and Terry Pratchett taught me about the importance of movement in a scene. Richard Matheson and Michael Crichton showed me that you can make a movie that just happens to be in the form of a book.

Are there any other exciting projects in your future?

I’m hoping to be finished the two-part sci-fi series by May. After that, it’s going to be a smaller romantic comedy, and then a trilogy that will either drive me to the asylum or place me in a permanent spot outside the local liquor store. But I’m excited to work on it.

What are your top five “desert island” books?

1. The Collected Poems of Al Purdy
2. Shoeless Joe – W.P. Kinsella
3. Somewhere in Time – Richard Matheson
4. The Commitments – Roddy Doyle
5. A book on how to get rescued from a desert island
twitter: @jbirchwriter