INTERVIEW WITH JONATHAN LaPOMA
AUTHOR OF: DEVELOPING MINDS: AN AMERICAN GHOST STORY
Can you tell us something about yourself? A short bio perhaps?
I’m an award-winning novelist, screenwriter, songwriter, and poet from Buffalo, NY. I typically write character-driven stories that are equal parts dark and humorous, and my work often explores themes of alienation and misery as human constructions that can be overcome through self-understanding and the acceptance of suffering. In the last ten years, I’ve worked in over fifteen American public schools as either a substitute or full-time teacher, and I currently teach at a secondary school in San Diego, CA.
When did you start writing?
For me, writing has been a slow progression. I started writing when I was about 8 or 9. I wrote a few short stories, and came up with ideas for television shows and video games, but I basically just ripped these off of existing stories, shows, and games (I still have most of these saved and I get a kick out of how terrible they are). I wrote like that for about a year or two, then stopped until I was about 17. I think every writer is born with an innate need to write, but, even though I started writing at a young age, I didn’t realize this need until high school. I walked into an English class one afternoon, and there was a blank piece of paper on each of our desks. After the bell rang, my teacher simply said, “Write.” Several of my classmates looked confused by the instruction, but I got it right away. I filled both sides of the page and started on another. After that, I started writing every so often, but never anything resembling a story, poem, or song until I got to college. On my 19th birthday, I used my gift money to buy a guitar. A friend who lived across the hall from me in our dorm had a guitar and taught me some chords. I played it nearly every free moment and learned songs by reading tabs online. But soon the urge to explore on my own took over, and I started writing songs.
The following year, I met a friend who was into poetry, and she encouraged me to write poems as well. She bought me a blank journal and I filled it within a month or two.
After college, I moved to Mexico for about five months and traveled through the country looking for answers to questions that haunt many young people trying to find their place in the world. It was a boozy, hazy time for me, but I experienced several profound changes there, and got the idea to write these changes after I returned home to Buffalo. This writing became my first novel, Understanding the Alacran.
Later on, I taught myself how to write screenplays. I’ve written seven screenplays now, six of which have won almost 70 awards in various international screenwriting contests, and one of them has a director attached to it.
What writers have influenced your work?
My biggest influences have been Jim Carroll, Jack Kerouac, Hunter Thompson, Charles Bukowski, JD Salinger, Ernest Hemingway, and Kahlil Gibran.
What are your writing habits?
Don’t really have any particular habits — I just write when I get the urge. When I have a story to tell, I try to write it as quickly as I can so it stays fresh in my head. After that, I re-read and edit, trying to bring out the essence of the story.
What led you to write Developing Minds: An American Ghost Story?
In part, I wanted to take readers on an inside look in a typical at-risk school in this country. I wanted to show the good as well as the bad, and do so in an honest and thoughtful manner without making judgments or pushing an agenda. A reviewer from the Midwest Book Review mentioned liking my focus on the details—the smaller moments in the day-to-day which bring a humanizing and “real” feel to the story. This isn’t some “outsider-comes-in-and-saves-the-dangerous-children” kind of story. It’s your aunt’s story, or your cousin’s story, or your next-door-neighbor’s story.
But I also wanted to tell the story of how a young writer, tormented by his own dark past, learns how to make peace with this past through his interactions with his troubled, but caring, students. As he begins to relate with the neglect and abuse his students feel, this main character starts to understand and distance himself from some of the shame he felt as a kid, and he’s able to overcome his writer’s block as a result.
I see DEVELOPING MINDS as more a coming-of-age story that happens to be set in a school than it is a story about teachers learning how to be better at their job. The main character wants to write, not teach, and his arc follows this trajectory.
How did you select the themes in the book?
Pretty much every theme for anything I’ve written has been about some issue that’s important to me — usually relating to self-understanding and the acceptance of suffering as a means for people to improve their own lives and the lives of those around them — and DEVELOPING MINDS was no exception. I think selecting themes is an unconscious process. Writers typically write about topics that are important to them, and the themes are often hidden beneath the characters and events of the story and not fully understood until after the story has already been written.
How long did it take you to write this book?
I wrote the first draft in about a month and edited it over the course of the next few years. I had a fairly good idea of what the book was about right from the beginning, so I didn’t have to do much in the editing process other than fix typos, grammatical errors, make stronger word choices, cut down on flourish.
What challenges did you face in writing this book? What challenges does writing,in general, present for you?
When writing DEVELOPING MINDS, it was difficult for me to cram the essence of an entire school year into a single novel. There’s so much that happens in a classroom throughout the year, and finding the most important elements that told the best story was challenging.
The most challenging aspect of writing to me is exploring a theme in a thorough and complex manner that shows not only my perspective of the issue, but also shows the other perspectives in a thoughtful and responsible manner. In DEVELOPING MINDS, there are plenty of characters who’d argue that not growing is the best way to live life. There are plenty of characters who are racists and wouldn’t care to shake themselves of their bigotry. I like to explore these characters/perspectives as much as I like to explore my own, and doing this in a complex and considerate manner, while also writing an entertaining, insightful story, is difficult.
What impact would you like this book to have on readers?
I would like readers to react to it strongly, whether in disgust, intrigue, gut-wrenching laughter…I write stories with the intention of challenging viewpoints, my own included, and the most I could ask from an audience is to give in to the story — to immerse themselves in the world of the story, no matter how foreign or disturbing it can be — and reflect upon why they’re reacting to the story in the manner that they are. I hope to inspire people to reflect upon their own lives and see if there are ways they can improve themselves as some of the characters do in my work. Whether they rate the book 1 or 5 stars, all I want is for people to have a strong response to my work.
With this book in particular, I’d also like to give readers some perspective of the horrors plaguing the American public school system in an honest and comprehensive manner. I don’t think most people have a realistic idea of the problems challenging schools, and I hope that DEVELOPING MINDS will open their eyes to some of these problems.
How do you think you have evolved as a writer during the process of writing this book?
DEVELOPING MINDS is my second novel, and writing it has helped me refine my craft of storytelling. I’ve learned to be more ruthless with my editing, and to cut anything unnecessary to the story.
What are your ambitions with your writing career?
I’d like to publish a few more novels and to get my screenplays produced. I’ve written seven scripts, and I’d like to see them on the big screen. I’d also like to see people find value in my work and use it to improve their lives in some way.
Can you give us a hint about your next writing project?
I’ve started writing the outline to a new screenplay that is a black comedy about an asshole who returns home (don’t know where that home will be yet, but I’m thinking somewhere in the Rust Belt) after his brother tries to commit suicide, only to find that the brother is the sanest person in the family. I only have a vague idea of the story so far and am looking forward to seeing it gain some more shape.
I’d also like to start a band sometime soon. I’ve written almost 200 songs, and I’d like to start performing them in public.
What books are you currently reading?
I just finished Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man by Bill Clegg and have started on The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Follow your instincts. There’s a whole hell of a lot of advice out there for writers, some of it good, a lot of it bad. I’d rather read a fresh, poetic, and insightful book in need of a good edit, than a perfectly presented book with no heart and soul. Tell the story that you want to tell, then worry about its presentation later on, and make no apologies to anyone.
What are some of your hobbies and passions?
This is difficult to answer because a lot of things that were once hobbies, like writing and playing the guitar, have become professional pursuits. I do love traveling, and am passionate about better understanding the world and the people who inhabit it. I’m passionate about raising awareness for the many ways people suffer on a daily basis, whether due to racism, poverty, mental health issues, neglect, abuse, gender inequality…
I’m also passionate about enchiladas.
Is there anything else you would like readers to know about yourself or your work?