Today’s special guest author is Len Joy who is chatting with me about his new literary fiction, Everyone Dies Famous.
Len Joy had an idyllic childhood, growing up in the gem of the Finger Lakes, Canandaigua, New York. In high school he lettered in four sports and went off to the University of Rochester with dreams of becoming a football hero and world famous novelist. But that didn’t happen. Instead he switched his major from English to Finance, quit the football team but started dating one of the cheerleaders. Three years later, Len and Suzanne were married, and four decades later, they still are with three grown kids.
They relocated to Chicago where Suzanne became a corporate lawyer and Len, with his MBA and CPA, became the auditing manager for U.S. Gypsum. Several years later, he bought an engine remanufacturing company in Arizona and for fifteen years commuted to Phoenix.
During those many flights, Len read hundreds of novels, renewing his dream of becoming a writer. In 2004, he wound down his engine business and started taking writing courses and competing in triathlons.
Today, Len is a nationally ranked triathlete and competes internationally representing the United States as a part of TEAM USA. He is also the author of three novels and a collection of stories. Len’s books and his writing have received shining reviews: “American Past Time” was reviewed by Kirkus as “. . . expertly written and well-crafted.” Kirkus also described “Better Days” as “a character-rich skillfully plotted Midwestern drama” and Foreword Reviews found it to be “a bighearted wry, and tender novel that focuses on love and loyalty.”
Please tell us about your new novel, Everyone Dies Famous:
As a tornado threatens their town, a stubborn old man who has lost his son teams up with a troubled young soldier to deliver a jukebox to the wealthy developer having an affair with the soldier’s wife.
It’s July 2003 and the small town of Maple Springs, Missouri is suffering through a month-long drought. Dancer Stonemason, a long-forgotten hometown hero still grieving over the death of his oldest son, is moving into town to live with his more dependable younger son. He hires Wayne Mesirow, an Iraq war veteran, to help him liquidate his late son’s business.
The heat wave breaks and the skies darken. Dancer tries to settle an old score while Wayne discovers the true cost of his wife’s indifference and turns his thoughts to revenge. Then the tornado hits Maple Springs and everything changes.
“Everyone Dies Famous” is a story from the heartland about the uncommon lives of everyday people – the choices they make, how they live their lives, and how they die.
What inspired you to write Everyone Dies Famous?
When I started writing Everyone Dies Famous, I thought it was going to be about how a man, who is nearing the end of his own life, deals with the grief of losing his oldest son. I set the story in a small town because that gave me a fictional world where most of the characters would know each other.
I made the decision early on that the story would take place in a single day and that there would be a tornado. The one-day construct forced me to keep the story focused, and the tornado, with its selective chaos (it can destroy one side of a street and leave the other side untouched), gave me a lot of flexibility in terms of what happens to the characters and the town.
Life is interesting. Most everyone experiences love and heartbreak, success and failure, regret and redemption. When I wrote the tagline for the novel that this is a story about the uncommon lives of everyday people, what I was really trying to say was that there are no everyday people and that everyone has a story worth telling.
Excerpt from Everyone Dies Famous:
7:00 PM—July 18, 2003
Zeke Mesirow left his apartment in Crestview Manor as soon as Big John Thomas on KUKU-FM announced—using his serious radio voice instead of his fake hillbilly twang—that they were bringing the bodies to the high school gymnasium.
The tornado had arrived from the north, surprising the so-called experts. It cut an equal opportunity path of destruction through Maple Springs, flattening the black Baptist church on the west side where Zeke’s very white ex-wife used to sing in the choir, and blowing away the sanctimonious Presbyterians on the east side. It pinballed down Main Street, chewing up the Tastee-Freeze, Hank Dabney’s Esso Station, Dr. Manickavel’s emergency care clinic, and the Main Street Diner, but sparing the useless bank, Crutchfield’s boarded up general store, and the VFW Lodge.
As it roared out of town, it destroyed the Chevy dealership where Zeke’s son had once worked and the fancy townhouse development project Ted Landis was building across the road from Crestview Manor.
Zeke wanted to call his son, but Wayne didn’t own a cellphone. The road into town was impassable. Uprooted trees, overturned vehicles, chunks of concrete, twisted rebar, and pickup-stick configurations of aluminum sliding, roof tiles, and wallboard were strewn across the highway. It didn’t matter—he couldn’t drive anyway. His truck had disappeared.
A soft mist hung in the air like a wet fog, and it was eerily quiet as he started walking down the highway to the high school. At the outskirts of town he saw a man, his dark business suit turned gray with grit, standing in his front lawn clutching an open briefcase and staring down the road like he was waiting for the bus. A few blocks farther on an old woman wrapped up in a ratty bathrobe swept brick fragments from her front stoop. The stoop was all that was left of her home. As Zeke turned on to Hill Street, a teenager on an ancient Huffy with a twisted front tire pedaled slowly by, weaving around the debris, his head swiveling like he was trying to figure out which pile of rubble was his home.
The high school at the end of the Summit Avenue looked untouched. A highway patrol car and Sheriff Patrick Quinlan’s cruiser flanked the driveway leading to the front of the school, and there was an ambulance and a fire truck in front of the entrance to the gymnasium. Two men were lifting someone off a stretcher into the ambulance.
Sheriff Quinlan leaned against the open door of his car like he needed it for support. Water dripped from the brim of his hat and his uniform was plastered to his skin. A mud-splattered Silverado rolled past Zeke and stopped at the driveway entrance. There were two body bags in the truck bed. Body bags just like they’d had in Nam. Quinlan waved the truck through.
As Zeke approached the sheriff, Quinlan held up his hand. “You have to go to City Hall, Zeke. The mayor’s handling the missing persons reports.”
Zeke Mesirow frowned. They had been friends once.
What exciting story are you working on next?
On the last day of the century, Joey Blade turns 18, learns his ex-girlfriend is pregnant, and is arrested for the attempted murder of two police officers. Then things get really bad.
The high school bonfire is supposed to be the kickoff to a great night. Joey has just won a football scholarship and he’s hoping for a sex breakthrough with his new girlfriend when his ex-girlfriend, and true love, Mallory, tells him she’s pregnant. Before he can process that news, the bonfire explodes.
Joey, his new girlfriend and her drug dealer friend TJ, flee in her truck. As the police pursue, TJ shoots at the cop’s car. It crashes and in the ensuing chaos TJ slips away undetected. Joey, the only adult in the truck, is hauled off to jail.
Joey is charged with attempted murder and with TJ still hiding out, the case against him is strong. His attorney believes he can get a deal with minimal jail time if he pleads guilty, but Mallory’s abusive father wants her to terminate the pregnancy and Joey must remain free to prevent that from happening. In desperation, he reaches out to notorious gang leader, Chico Torres, whom he met in jail, for help locating TJ.
When the prosecutors offer Joey a deal for his freedom in exchange for his cooperation in nailing Chico, Joey makes a decision that changes the course of his life and Mallory’s.
Dry Heat is a crime novel about a boy who loses everything but his heart. It will appeal to readers who enjoy taut crime thrillers like Scott Turow’s The Last Trial, or heartbreaking coming-of-age narratives like Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
A few years back I was called for jury duty in Chicago’s Cook County Criminal Court. It was a murder trial and the judge was determined to seat a jury in one day. Out of a pool of one hundred prospective jurors my number was called in the first set of 15. We were brought up to the jury box and the judge proceeded, one-by-one, to interview us. He was mildly intimidating. The first question he asked everyone was, “What do you do?”
I was getting nervous as my time approached. I usually told people I was an aspiring writer. It seemed less presumptuous. But I had the sense this judge was not interested in my angst over whether I am really a writer or just someone who wants to be a writer, so I said, “I’m a writer.”
He asked me what I write and I gave him a brief rundown on my first novel, American Past Time. He scrunched up his face. “It’s fiction?” he asked. “Yes, it’s a novel,” I said. He shrugged, no longer interested. He finished with the other jurors and then the bailiff told our group to come back tomorrow, except for the big biker dude with snake tattooed arms, the lady who worked for Moody Bible institute, and me, The Writer.
Do you write full time?
I always say I write full-time, but that is perhaps because I have a liberal interpretation of what constitutes “writing.” I include time spent watching television dramas, thinking about my writing project while showering, and of course, walking and talking with my dog, Russell (who is a very good listener.) On a normal day, I get up around 5 a.m., workout for two hours, walk Russell, settle down at my desk around 10 a.m. and do actual writing until about 3 p.m. Then I walk Russell again. After that I read someone else’s novel, short story, or poem and have a glass or two of wine. And cheese. I love cheese. Wine too.
Interesting writing quirk?
I asked my wife if I had any interesting quirks and she just laughed. So, I guess I don’t have any.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
When I was younger, I wanted to be a wide receiver for the Cleveland Browns. But as I matured, I became more realistic and set my sights on becoming a relief pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
If anyone reading this interview happens to read one of my books and really likes it and if that reader happens to be friends with Oprah, I encourage them to share the book with her and I will be happy to replace their copy for no charge. I’ll even sign it.
And thank you, Lisa, for this opportunity. It is much appreciated.
Thanks for being here today!