Interview with Joel Canfield, author of “Dark Sky”

Tell us a little about yourself.

I’ve been writing for just about all of my adult life and it’s definitely my passion. I’ve written screenplays, some of which have sold and been optioned, and, when I was in my twenties, I wrote three novels, two of which made some headway towards getting published but never quite got there. In recent years, I’ve focused mostly on ghostwriting as a way to make a living, and have written a few Amazon and Wall Street Journal bestsellers for other people as a result. Lisa, my wife (who’s also a writer) and I also had the privilege of ghostwriting the story of Keyon Dooling, a former NBA point guard, who had a breakdown during a season with the Boston Celtics and ended up in the mental hospital as a result. It was an amazing and moving story and I invite those reading this interview to check it out (it’s called What’s Driving You???).

When did you decide you really wanted to write?

I would put the blame on two of my Middle School English teachers. The first one I had when I was in 7th Grade. All of us in the class were assigned to write a short story. When I had finished mine, I thought it was kind of dopey and no big deal. But the day after we handed all of them in, the teacher announced to the class that she wanted to read one of them out loud. It was mine and the entire class laughed and applauded the story, and that was a bit of a revelation to me that maybe I was talented at this stuff.
I had the second English teacher in 9th Grade. She handed out small blank books and announced we were all to write in these books whenever we wanted to – and we could write whatever we wanted to. I jumped on it and filled up that book by the end of the year and she loved most of the stuff I did. It was the first time I had written on a regular basis and the freedom to do whatever I wanted to do was addicting. And I decided I wanted to keep doing it, so I joined the literary magazine when I got to High School.

Dark Sky, your first published novel, has the feel of a traditional detective novel but with a very modern spin. What drew you to this genre?

When I was young, I was a huge fan of Raymond Chandler – but never really thought of tackling the genre. I was too afraid of copying what he did, to be honest. But when I decided to self-publish a novel, a writer friend told me I should (a) pick a popular genre and (b) write a series in that genre with the same character. Again, I was wary of doing that kind of thing, but suddenly, the main character and plot of Dark Sky came to me without much work on my part. I began to write it with a Chandler-esque point of view, but with enough of a modern spin and a heavy dose of my own personality. I was immediately excited with the possibilities and so was Lisa, who I showed the first chapter to. She told me I had to keep going.

How often do you write?

Every single work day, Monday through Friday. When I’m working on a novel of my own, you can add a few hours on Sunday to that mix. Because I make a living writing for my clients, I’m not often away from my keyboard. As a matter of fact, that keyboard has three keys where the actual letters have been worn away. Maybe time for a new one…

Do you ever get Writer’s Block?

I can’t afford to! Generally, I’m writing nonfiction for my clients, so those books always dictate their own structure – I don’t get blocked, but I do get tired, so I know when I need to walk away for a while. With fiction, it’s a different story. My worst habit as a writer has always been being a little too overconfident on the page – I figure I can write my way out of any jam, when I really need to stop and figure out some story points. Fortunately, through years of experience, I’ve managed to get to a point where I know when something’s not working and I know I need to think it through some more. I wouldn’t exactly call it writer’s block, as most of the time, it’s only a matter of a day or so until I figure out the answer – and in the meantime, I’m usually just jumping back on a client project until I have that breakthrough.

Do you have any suggestions for other writers who may experience it?

Every writing situation is different, in my opinion. Usually, when I feel unsure, I try to write anyway – so I can either try to uncover the problem or find a way to further the story. If you’re just starting a project and you’re not feeling it, however, you may want to shift gears and start something different. Many times, I’ve walked away from my own projects after just a few pages and never finished them. I have to feel a certain enthusiasm to follow through on an idea, because a screenplay or a novel is a lot of work, and if you’re just feeling “meh” about the whole thing, you’re probably not going to wind up with something that’s worth all that time and effort.

How important is research to one of your novels?

Very – and the internet makes it simple. If I’m writing about a place I’ve never been to, I can literally see what it looks like through Google Earth. If I have a question about history, science, medicine, whatever, I can find the answer easily. It’s amazing to have the ability to do research on the spot in a way that doesn’t take away from my flow.

Do you set a plot or prefer going wherever an idea takes you?

I’m not a huge fan of detailed outlining. At the same time, I also know how hugely important structure is to a novel (or any piece of writing, for that matter). I usually have a general idea of where I’m going and create the specifics as I go along – that way I can work in more genuine reactions from my characters rather than forcing them to confirm to some plot machinations that might not be realistic in terms of who they are. I prefer character-driven stories that, yes, have strong plots, but not plots that feel contrived or forced.

What is the hardest thing about writing, in your opinion?

The blank page, when you’re tired, when you’re down, when you don’t have your full energy or confidence. It’s tempting to walk away, but I find if I start putting something down, I eventually get my groove. And if I don’t, there’s still usually something I’ll end up using that I didn’t have in my head before.

What’s the easiest?

Rewriting. Everything is there, your characters and plot are established, it’s just a matter of messing with what you already have. I usually look forward to going over what I’ve already written. Of course, it sucks when you realize what you wrote stinks, but I usually know if it sucks before I sit down to rewrite – and have already figured out a solution. Otherwise, I stay away from it until I do.

You’ve been writing a long time. What’s the biggest improvement you’ve seen in your work?

I mentioned before that my experience has given me a pretty good bullshit detector when it comes to recognizing a chapter isn’t working. I have a deep, almost unconscious, feeling for structure after all these years and that’s what I’m happiest about gaining over the years. Also, in general, my extensive life experience really brings a certain richness to my writing that wasn’t there before. I’ve lived in a lot of different places, including New Zealand, I’ve worked as a corporate VP as well as a down-and-out freelancer, I’ve been divorced, I’ve been through horrifying family tragedies and it all adds to my toolbox as a writer. I don’t have to imagine what it feels like to go through most situations – I know.

Do you proofread and edit your work on your own or pay someone to do it for you?

Fortunately, I sit at a very long desk next to my editor. That editor also happens to be Lisa, my wife, who has amazing editing and writing skills. So if I try to get away with crap, she’s not slow to let me know – at the same time, she’s wonderfully positive and encouraging (which is why I trust her criticisms). I know I’m in trouble when she says to me, “I can tell you were tired when you wrote this part…”

Have you ever left any of your books stew for months on end or even a year?

No. I either abandon it all together or I keep going until it’s done. If I get a significant way into a book, that means I feel it’s worth finishing. So I do.

How much of yourself do you put into your books?

Into Dark Sky and Blue Fire – my two Max Bowman mysteries – a lot. Max happens to be my age and happens to share many of my habits, opinions and thought processes. And since I write them in the first person, I’m there on every page, even though I personally have never worked for the CIA.

So you’ve used your own life in your novels?

Yes, and I’ve paid the price. Like most writers, I sometimes base characters on people I’ve actually known. Sometimes that upsets those people when they actually read the book. One person specifically could not get past my initial description of the character based on them, because, at the time, they were going through a difficult period and it just reminded them of a lot of negatives – even though it was a character that most of my reviews singled out as the most lovable one!

How realistic are your books?

Great question. There are a lot of mystery-thrillers where dead bodies are popping up on every other page – or people are getting killed left and right. I always find those kinds of plots very hard to believe. Take the TV drama Sons of Anarchy about a motorcycle gang in a small Northern California town. If the number of deaths that happened in that burg actually happened in a real place, the authorities would have it under martial law – or maybe just burn the town to the ground. I like to make the events happening in my books as realistic as possible up to a point – but there always has to be a bigger-than-life quality to the stories as well to make them interesting to the reader. So my approach is to make the characters and actions as “normal” and believable as possible in order to make the over-the-top plot aspects as powerful and credible as possible. It’s kind of an anti-James Bond approach, even though I’m a big Bond fan.

Are you a part of any kind of writers’ community?

I never had been. I always worked by myself and never really was interested in connecting with other writers or being involved in any kind of workshop situation. That all changed back in the early 2000’s, when the actor Kevin Spacey started a radically new website called Triggerstreet. Triggerstreet invited unproduced writers to post screenplays and review each other’s work. They promised a shot at Hollywood, a promise that never materialized, but that didn’t matter – because to this day, Lisa and I are still good friends with the writers we met on that site. Mostly, we interact with them on Facebook, but we occasionally trade manuscripts to get opinions and swap advice on the writing business. One of those friends got me into self-publishing, as a matter of fact.

Do you have kids? Any of them interested in writing since both you and your wife are pros?

The second youngest has actually written some screenplays and TV scripts, more for fun than anything. Mostly, he enjoys writing serious film criticism – and I mean serious. He wrote and did interviews for Indiewire.com during an internship last summer – Rose Byrne hugged him – and he has his own review site, www.criticsincollege.blogspot.com, where he takes on Hollywood on a daily basis. And by the way, his Oscar guesses this year were more accurate than those of Variety or The Hollywood Reporter – so he knows his shit.

Dark Sky was your first published novel. Are you happy with the reception?

Very. Way above my expectations. But I knew it would get good reviews after my wife read it and loved it. She is not a genre fiction person and she has a hard time dealing with crap. I can’t tell you the number of movies we’ve stopped watching on television because she just thought they were garbage. So I figured if I got it past her, I could get it past anybody. It currently has a 4.8 star average on Amazon, which is amazing, and I’m waiting to see what Kirkus thinks of it, I’ll be getting that review in a couple of weeks.

I understand you’ve just finished the writing of the sequel, Blue Fire. How are you feeling about it?

Well, technically it’s not finished until my wife reads it and edits it, but I’m feeling really psyched about it. In Dark Sky, I was learning while I was doing it in a way, since I had never done that kind of book before. This time around, I felt a lot more comfortable and tried a lot more things. So I’m very anxious to see what everyone thinks of it. But again, if Lisa ends up liking it, I’ll know I’m in good shape. If it’s a go, it should be up and for sale in early March.

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