An Interview with J.M. Holmes
by Dani Hedlund
What inspired you to write How Are You Going to Save Yourself?
It was six years in the making. When I was at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I started to see an arc in these stories featuring a group of friends. It began to take shape around these four young men and their lives. I grew up with a lot of people who were artistic but didn’t necessarily have the outlet for it. We grew up rapping and sometimes writing some poetry, but none of us were very literary. I imagine that if they had had the breaks that I had, they might have found their way to write something like this.
This book is unconventional in that each chapter can work as a stand-alone story. What was it like to put all of them together to tell an overarching story?
Most of the through lines were hammered out by editors and people that I’ve had the great fortune of working with. They put together the pieces of the puzzle. I originally wrote the stories as individual pieces and through the process of editing, we adjusted different aspects to show an entire arc.
Once I started gaining some momentum in Iowa, I began to write more stories. I wasn’t filling in gaps, but I could see where the next story was going and how it would fit. So much happened in the editing process. Ben George at Little Brown was so meticulous. We had to change some ages and dates to get everything to sync up. I definitely had a lot of help in that regard.
What played into the decision to begin the collection with its opening story?
The first story and the last story were originally one story. A professor at Iowa said I could separate that story and write another piece surrounding the last scene. I split the original and wrote a new ending. A lot of people think the ending is depressing, and that may be true, but it felt right for the collection.
You tackle some big topics in this book that many writers shy away from. What was it like to confront these difficult themes so directly?
I imagine the hard part is still to come: dealing with people who don’t want to read it. I can understand and respect that. But I don’t think that ignoring real stories will make them go away. It won’t change reality. You can write the world the way you want it to be, or you can write the world the way you see it. I try to write the world the way I see it. It is difficult waiting to see how it is going to be received. My grandmother hates the stories she’s read so far. Even my family doesn’t really want to read this stuff. I think it will be a long road ahead.
The book opens in a really dramatic fight scene and then we have more conflict as it goes on, but there are moments of down time as well. You have everything from warriors recovering from battle to big moments of character development to literally waiting for a mountain to thaw. What was it like keeping that balance between intense adrenaline and in-depth character development?
It just felt natural to me. There’s a lot of energy and action, and the natural progression to me was to go inside, to go internal to relieve all of that tension. But then, of course, we go back into that intensity, which I think is important too. I love action in books, and sometimes it’s done really well and sometimes it’s not. I wanted to make sure there was a healthy dose of action and it wasn’t all about how this character or these characters feel in their dialogue. I really like to focus on the external while also exploring the internal processes and what’s happening inside the character.
Culturally, where I come from, these stories wouldn’t be as revolting or shocking. My friends from home who’ve read these stories don’t blink. I had an awakening after I received the fellowship to Napa. Some people told me that my work wasn’t real fiction, that it was written just for shock value. It was a wake up call because I had been writing in an insulated box. I had imagined my readers as people who grew up on rap music. Napa was a rude awakening. It is crazy to think that the people I’m writing for might not ever read these stories.
Who do you feel you write for? Are you trying to shed light on a particular social issue or situation?
Hopefully this book finds its way into the hands of some Mulatto readers, some black nerds, and some people who can feel empowered to be nerdy and one-off from whatever culture they come from. I don’t think I have a grand, social change design. Authors who do sometimes come off as pretentious. I have always been influenced by music and movies, and the people I was around. But, unless you are Marlon James or Toni Morrison, a literary undertaking probably isn’t going to reach that many people.
It is a mixed bag, and there’s a wide range of life experience. One thing I learned is that when people read your story and give you feedback, you learn more about those people than you do your story. That was an important take away. I learned there, and in conjunction with Napa, that there are some people who will categorically reject this book. It hurts, but I’m getting used to it.
How much of these stories came from your own life? How much was fictionalized? What was it like to walk that line?
When I was writing these stories, I didn’t know if they would ever get published. I took more liberty to pull from my life, and it was cathartic. As it got more and more real, I realized that I had to protect people; I didn’t want to damage any of my family members. I had to go back and figure out different ways to flesh out characters and events. The stories featuring the group of friends are mostly imagined or inspired by rap. These are much more fictional than the family-based stories.
The voice in this book is captivating. What was it like to develop a voice that is so compelling and so real?
I think that might just be my voice! I’m glad you like it. I’m trying to write a novel now and using a more imagined voice. It is difficult! I long for the days when I was writing short stories in a voice that came so easily.
You talk about how your friends are reticent to walk into bookstores and have primarily attached to other mediums, such as rap. What made you choose the literary route?
I had a friend in high school who said I didn’t have enough charisma to be a rapper. We did a couple shows and I was really bad. I could write, but I couldn’t perform very well. I started writing stories when I was a freshman in college. Up until that point, I hadn’t written anything literary. I don’t want to say that it came easily, because that’s not true, but it felt natural.
Freestyling with friends is one of the best feelings. I miss that, and I miss making music. In college, we made a few albums that are still littering YouTube. Writing is so solitary. Rapping is much more collaborative. You have a canvas, you have a beat. The written word can seem paltry sometimes. I wish I could play the piano, or guitar, or even paint. When you are playing music, people are reacting.
Do you think you’ll ever feel the same kind of connection with your readers that you do with people listening to your music?
I watched a lot of readings at Iowa. There’s a big difference between good readers and bad readers. There’s definitely a performative element. But I don’t think I’ll ever have people chanting my words along with me as I read.
Talk a bit about the publication process. How did this book come into being?
I met with Anna Stein when she visited Iowa. She hit me back a few months later and said she liked the story I gave her, which ended up being the first story in the collection. I sent her five more stories. Those were all that I had at the time. Then, she took a hiatus and I assumed we weren’t going to work together. Eventually she got back to me and wanted to move forward. After that, she started placing the stories. I went to China to teach for a year and we fell out of contact. When I got back, I sent her the whole manuscript and she said it was almost ready to go.
I’ve learned a lot about networking in the industry. I sent these stories out to publications and they were rejected. Then Anna sent them out to the same publications and they were accepted. It exists in every industry. I almost feel guilty being on the other side now. It’s like my equivalent of white guilt. It’s writer’s guilt. I have an agent and an editor and things are going in my favor when they could just as easily fall apart.
Can you talk to me about your new novel?
The ending of your collection was heartbreaking. Is the ending of your novel going to have the same effect?
No, I want to write a happy ending. I didn’t intend for the stories in the collection to all be heartbreaking. They just kind of came out that way. As my friends and family read it, it’s almost like I am rediscovering the collection through their eyes. When you’re in the editing process, you’re dealing with minutia. You are crafting sentences, scenes, and dialogue. You aren’t stepping back and experiencing just how sad these stories are. I don’t want to be known as a writer who puts people through that heartbreak.
How long did it take from writing the first story until publication of the entire collection?
Around eight years.
What do you think you are trying to say with this book? What would you like the reader to take away after reading?
I think I’m asking for an extreme amount of reader empathy. I know right now, especially in this country, people are not likely to give it. I set out to show what could happen to young black men when their situations, both institutionally and socially, are grim. I don’t know if people will be able to empathize. It’s hard. I’m asking a lot of the reader, but I don’t think I could have written it any other way.