John Van Roekel, a regular San Diego DimeStorier, is our first guest host for 2018. As I interviewed him for this piece, it struck me how lucky I am to get to know the characters in our DimeStory. We talked over an hour and John’s enthusiasm for writing, San Diego Writers, Ink, history, and DimeStories made for a remarkable conversation. He inspires me because he embraces life-long-learning and demonstrates how writing opens the door for opportunities to meet a marvelous community of creative people. His compassion, tenacity and hunger for historical research led him to write three impressive historical novels: Braver Deeds, Prisoner Moon, and Lorenzo’s Assassin.
Born in Iowa, John’s family moved near Pontiac, Michigan where he attended high school. He only applied to one school, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He laughs as he admits, “I’m glad I got in, because I didn’t have a Plan B.” He graduated with a B.A. in aerospace engineering and an M.A. in computer engineering. While raising two sons, John lived and worked in several states before returning to Ann Arbor.
“Books can have enormous influence on us,” and in 1994, John read Nathan Miller’s biography Theodore Roosevelt: A Life. The next day, he surprised his wife, Pam, by declaring that he was going to write an historical novel about Buffalo Soldiers. To do the research, he traveled to Cuba before it was easy to do so. He dug deeply into the history until his wife mentioned that “To be a writer you actually have to write something…” He started the next day and demonstrating great tenacity, finished Braver Deeds fourteen years later. (1.)
John’s love of research is obvious. He smiles and his hands dance as he describes his visits to sites of events in his books. He walked the ravine where the brutal Wounded Knee Massacre took place. When he began his second book, Prisoner Moon, the research was mostly done in and around Michigan where German prisoners were held during WWII. He was fascinated by the contrasting history of German immigrants versus the prisoners in the area.
Having moved to San Diego and working for SONY, John traveled again when he started his third historical novel, Lorenzo’s Assassin, the story of Pope Sixtus IV’s plot to murder Lorenzo the Magnificent. For this research he found himself in Florence and Rome, wandering the remaining buildings and streets of the book’s events. (2.)
Despite his love of research, John stresses that historical fiction is “10% history and 90% fiction, meaning characters and story.” Without the interesting people or the action in the plot, the research just becomes dry facts. I asked him if there were a theme that runs through all three books and he said that in hindsight, he sees his books as triptychs, that each book weaves the stories of three characters in the backdrop of historical events. Because of that, he named his publishing imprint Triptych Press.
As far as publishing, John first tried what was the conventional method, an agent. He was thrilled to find an agent who was interested in Braver Deeds, but his enthusiasm was dashed by the amount of work and changes the agent required. Although it was difficult, he made the changes and feels the experience was very valuable. Finally, a press was interested, but they wanted him to cut the book significantly. He tried but found he just couldn’t do it, so instead, John decided to self-publish.
Self-publishing is challenging, as well, but because of his computer experience and his interest in the process, this too became a valuable learning experience. Rather than use paid services, he figured out the formatting and art as well as many other aspects that might not even occur to the first-time self-publisher.
In addition to editing his father’s WWII letters, John decided to make Prisoner Moon into a screenplay. He took classes, hired a script consultant, and began to submit the screenplay to contests. Prisoner Moon received some minor awards and won the 2016 Paris Independent Film Festival. Recently, he was nominated for a screenplay award and he and Pam had a wonderful experience when they attended the award ceremony on Catalina Island. You can view his red-carpet interview at https://youtu.be/frGS72Q5rKk.
He laughs when asked what advice he would give to new writers, “You actually have to write.” In addition, he said, “The journey is the reward. Take classes, get involved in a read-and-critique group. I was in Rich Farrell’s group when I wrote the second draft of Lorenzo’s Assassin. Get in a group where you can get supportive, positive advice.”
John writes on a computer, not long hand. He has transitioned from a desktop to a laptop on the couch. Often, John attends Room to Write at San Diego Writers, Ink because it has an atmosphere that focuses his attention on his craft. He loves reading his own work out loud. He reads “each sentence over and over again and edits until it’s as good as it can possibly be. One reason I love DimeStories is that it provides the training to stand up there and confidently present your work.”
We at DimeStories are so lucky to have John as a regular attendee at our monthly gatherings. Please come and enjoy the next San Diego Open Mic, January 12, 2018 with author John Van Roekel as our guest host!
- Carrie Danielson