Take Ten with J. J. Zerr, Author of “War Stories”

A big thanks to Coffee and Critique member, author J. J (Jack) Zerr, for agreeing to be featured on the Coffee and Critique blog. Jack is a hard-working writer who has published several novels. His most recent publication is a collection of short stories titled War Stories.  

In case you haven’t guessed from the photo of him below, taken during one of our weekly critique meetings, Jack is a former pilot. His t-shirt states, “I love the smell of jet fuel in the morning.”

The ten questions below are divided in three parts: background, writing, and publishing/wrap-up. 

1. First, a bit about your background. Before you started your writing journey, you had a distinguished military career as a pilot and an Admiral in the U.S. Navy and a consultant in private industry. Can you briefly share your thoughts about that experience?

A.    I was shanghaied into the US Navy by my father. I did not want to be a sailor, but Pop said the Navy might teach me something. He took me to a recruiter, said sign here, and I signed. Life as a junior enlisted man was not fun. I got seasick and planned to get the crap out of that outfit as soon as I could. But, I took a test for a Navy college scholarship program, and lo and behold, I scored well on the test and went to Purdue for a BS in electrical engineering. Also when I went in the Navy, I was going steady with a high school classmate. She went to nurse’s training when I went to boot camp. I thought she’d meet a doctor, and that I’d find out about it via a “Dear John.” But as it turned out, half way through Purdue, as an E-5, I had the wherewithal to ask her to marry me. So it turns out Pop was right. The Navy educated me. And I was wrong. The service didn’t get me a Dear John, rather, the Navy enabled Karen and I to give each other “I dos.” Vietnam happened, I went on to hold five command positions, including an aircraft carrier, and was lucky enough to retire as a rear admiral. Overlaying that, Karen and I had six children, and we lost a preemie in 1969. If I had picked my own way after high school, God only knows what I’d have turned into. Maybe He doesn’t even want to think about it. If I had really gotten that Dear John, I don’t know. I’d have been unborn off the earth, or it would be “Better for me to have had a millstone tied around my neck and cast into the sea over the Marianas Trench.”
Brief you said. Sorry about that.

2. During your military career you traveled around the world. What are some of your most memorable experiences or the unforgettable places you’ve been?

A.    Number one, San Juan, Puerto Rico. It was the first port outside the US my ship visited. Guys from the electronics technician shop I worked in took me to a bar, where as long as one person in the group was of age, we got beer. The bar had girls. The girls were friendly. The guys from my shop wanted to buy some friendship for me, but I got up and walked back to the ship. It was, to the guys in my shop, some sort of initiation ritual. It would make me a regular guy, I guess. But I saw it as a cliff. After twelve years of Catholic school, if I worried more about those guys accepting me than what I’d been taught, it would have been like throwing away the first eighteen years of my life. Ever since then, I have been suspicious of group think, the prevailing sense of right and wrong, PC, these days. Perhaps San Juan is a big reason I list Shane, Hondo, and The Oxbow Incident at the top of my all-time favorite books.

3. Now, onto the questions about writing: What has been the biggest influence on your writing (e.g. a teacher, your family, your faith, your military experience, none of the above, all of the above???)

A.    First, Sister Mathew, lit teacher in high school. Through her, I encountered my favorite short story: The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber; my favorite novella: The Old Man and the Sea; and my two favorite lines of poetry: “The tintinnabulation of the bells”, and “You may contribute a verse.” And I have always loved to read. My wife says I was born with a book in my hand. If I was, when the doc held me upside down and smacked my bottom, I bet I yowled but did not drop the book. And Sister inspired in me the desire, to one day, write a book of my own.

4. How did you get started on your writing journey?

A.    See above. And in my junior year at Purdue, I found an ad for a Writer’s Correspondence Course. We really couldn’t afford the fee, but my new bride said it was okay to spend the money. I completed the course and carried the materials around with me through twenty-five moves. When I was in the Navy, I worked at being in the Navy. When I worked in aerospace, I worked at being an engineer and a manager. I retired from that line in 2007, and on January 2, 2008, I began work on my first novel. Ted Koontz worked his day job and wrote his poetry at night. God bless Ted for the verses he contributed. Me, I couldn’t really start writing until I could do it full time.

5. What is your favorite aspect of writing? What is your least favorite aspect of writing?

A.    I love it when an idea for a story comes out of wherever they come from. The book I
am working on currently is called Guerilla Bride. I have a CD with a collection of Civil War songs on it. One of the tracks is about Kate Quantrill. That song inspired the story. The story, by the way, began life as a short story. I packaged it along with some others and sent it off to my publisher early last year. In the first review, the editor suggested I turn the Civil War story into a novel. Whose advice I took and which I am close to finishing. Which is why War Stories was delayed a year.

My least favorite aspect is finishing a story. Two reasons actually: one is after an intimate involvement with a cast of characters, they aren’t mine anymore after publication; Two I experience a bit of a lost feeling after having lived in a world of my manufacture for a long time, and suddenly, the world just isn’t there anymore. It lasts a couple of days; then other stories start yammering to be turned into ink on pages.     

6. How has belonging to a critique group helped your writing?

A.    I’ve said this a number of times before, but the best piece of writing critique I’ve ever gotten was from Lou Turner. I brought in a story, which was about a Navy pilot who was the new guy in his squadron and he was anxious to not be the new guy anymore. I had a scene set in an O Club bar. After I read my scene, Lou said, “I gotta tell you. I didn’t like it at all. It’s just another stupid guys drinking in a bar story.” In my mind, I was telling the story I wanted to tell, to my reader, Lou, however, I told an entirely different story. After my fourth novel came out, a classmate of mine from Purdue wrote to tell me he liked The Happy Life of Preston Katt. Then he went on to say, “your writing is better when you are not writing about yourself.” I had to think about that a bit, but I believe I see what he was telling me. I think I get into my characters, the good guys, the bad guys, the bit players, and I think you have to do that, but you also have to be a little bit god, and stand above all the blood, sweat, and tears, detached enough so you can see if your readers will feel and smell and hear what the character senses. For me, the Coffee and Critique group has been powerful in helping me develop a sense of reader perspective. I hope I never let myself believe I’ve learned all I need to about this subject.

7. Now, for publishing: You’ve published several successful novels, but War Stories is your first collection of short stories. Why did you decide to compile these stories and what can you tell us about the collection?

A.    My first two novels were each three-year projects. When I put them out for editing or review, I worked on other things. I wrote stories to submit to contests and for consideration of inclusion in anthologies, and all of those were to expose my work to a wide range of readers. I never submitted to contests unless they promised feedback. Some of these stories wind up as scenes or chapters in the novels. The bar scene mentioned above, for instance, wound up, modified, in my fifth novel, The Junior Officer Bunkroom. I decided to compile them into a book because I had accumulated a sizeable collection of short pieces, and I thought, what the heck. I looked at them all and tried to find a theme. The theme really came from the first story in the book, “What Kind of Man are You?” The main character, Joe Bob, in a sense, is a bulldozer plowing over people and obstacles to get a job done. He’s in the military in the beginning of the story, but in the military, even bulldozers have commanding officers. He’s booted out of the Navy. But Joe Bob’s philosophy is: “Do not let your chin drop. Find a way. Keep going forward until your heart stops, your eyes go dim, and you fall off your legs.”

People say, “Life sucks, then you die.” Which is pessimistic, dark even. Joe Bob does not allow the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, the vicissitudes of life show him even a glimpse of the dark side.

Life is full of struggles, wars even, and not just between nations.
Gender, age, technology, acceptance, political correctness can all be battlegrounds. The characters in my stories, for the most part, are more like Joe Bob than the life sucks crew.

8. Do you have a favorite story in the War Stories collection?

A.    That’s like saying which one of your daughters is the most beautiful. Well, not quite. Anyway, one of the things I tried to do with these stories was to try different narrator voices. And I am satisfied that I did that. I guess I like “Forwards.” I think I’ll just leave it at that.

9. After publishing five novels and a short story collection, what lessons have you learned about writing, editing, and the publishing process?

A.  I’ve read books about character, plot, tension, showing instead of telling. I attended a writing weekend in New York a couple of years ago, and got critiques from eleven big city folks and the instructor (a Californian.) But more importantly, I think, I’ve been writing every day, almost, since January ’08. I think I learned a lot. I like to think my writing has and is improving every time I get the keys to clickety clacking. But it doesn’t make it easier. It still is harder than work to get things as right as I can make them. A worthy editor is worth her weight in pearls. (Most of them are female, although I have found one male at my publisher who is very good on structure. Editors are vital, in my mind, not only for structure and grammar and spelling and word choice, but checking historical facts as well, and catching the use of modern terminology in a time setting before the terminology was invented. I love editors. I self-publish. I like the control I have over the process. I like the editors the publisher uses, and they have publishing packages, ranging from simple publishing to publishing plus levels of publicity. I’m comfortable with them. They are comfortable with the money I pay them.

10. Any final thoughts you’d like to share?

A.  Just thanks for the blog.
You can learn more about Jack and his books here.

Posted By Donna Volkenannt and Coffee and Critique