Please introduce yourself and your book(s)!
My name is Joel D. Hirst, I am a traveler and a writer. I travel the lost places, often for work, and I sometimes write about it. My books are a natural result of my experiences in places distant and perhaps exotic; but more than that we as humans struggle all with the same problems – whether we are from the jungles of South America or the deserts of the Sahara, we share concerns and fears and dreams. I try to find those things in the places and situations where life takes me and write about those. I write for an American audience, and I write in English though I do speak various languages – and my books have appeared in Spanish and French as well. As for me? I was raised in the southern Andes Mountains of Argentina; I went to high school in Caracas – I have worked in Africa and the Caucuses and Latin America. I have worked in more than a dozen countries and visited more than fifty. I am a graduate of Moody Bible Institute and Brandeis University. Home is Gilbert Arizona.
What is/are the real-life story(ies) behind your book(s)?
The struggle of humanity for freedom, for meaning, and to create that cushion between oneself and destitution; that is what I write about. Because that is what I have seen in a wide world in the places I work. My two-part series on Venezuela, the San Porfirio series, came from my living there seven years, in the rise and fall of their political experiment – and to watch a country kill itself, that is unusual. Like a lot of Latin American “dictator” novels written by the greats (Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa, Isabel Allende, etc.) these novels have magical realism, they try and capture the special spirit that inspires Latin America and makes it unique and different. Lords of Misrule is about a young Tuareg boy from the Sahara who gets dragged into a world of extremism and Jihad, and why, and how he escapes. I, Charles, From the Camps is about a Ugandan refugee who tries to figure out how to carve out a place for himself in the world and how that is hard and how he turns to darkness when all other options are denied him. They are real stories; not about people I’ve actually met, but more archetypes, characters who represent in their struggles the struggles of so many. My first play “Dreams of the Defeated” is about a political prisoner who attempts to rise up, and how he fails. I have known many political prisoners in my life – and this play I write for them. I’m working on my 5th novel right now – “The Unraveling”, which is about the end, not how it happened nor what comes after but that in-between period when everything is creaking to a stop.
What inspires/inspired your creativity?
The people I talk to, the struggles of ordinary folks to be free, to find their way. The tremendous courage of nameless people who you will never hear about but who are forming the world by their extraordinary discipline to live. Its like Joseph Conrad wrote in Lord Jim, ”
“Time had past indeed: it had overtaken him and gone ahead. It had left him hopelessly behind with a few poor gifts: the iron grey hair, the heavy fatigue of the tanned face, two scars, a pair of tarnished shoulderstraps; one of those steady, reliable men who are the raw material of great reputations, one of those unaccounted lives that are buried without drums and trumpets under the foundations of monumental success.”
How do you deal with creative block?
Not very well. Recently I stopped writing for like 4 months – focusing instead on reading. “The Unraveling” is proving to be a challenge – but word by word, sentence by sentence it is advancing. Too slowly, albeit.
What are the biggest mistakes you can make in a book?
The worst books are written preachily; platforms for the author’s agenda about this thing or that thing or something else. I just read Aldous Huxley’s novel “Island”. Admittedly he wrote it very quickly in the 1930s in response to the fear that Fascism was rising in the USA. It was written to use the Nobel prize winning writer’s reputation to try and push politics – and it is garbage. That is the biggest mistake, thinking that we have anything to offer except our talent for a good tale and our experiences which make their way onto the blank paper in front of us. It comes from hubris, of course – a natural product of both success and, ironically, from failure for the artist. It should be avoided.
Do you have tips on choosing titles and covers?
I actually think of a title almost first, and then the book forms around the title. I know, most people do it oppositely. I changed the title to “Lords of Misrule” at the recommendation of the publisher. The original title was “An Uncommon Mischief” – I wish I had stayed with my title.
How do bad reviews and negative feedback affect you and how do you deal with them?
So I’m not on FB (except a public page managed by my wife) nor am I on twitter. If somebody wants to insult me, they need to put some thought into it, reason it out and write it. I like good reviews – of course – bad reviews I take again from the place from which they are offered. If they are just being snarky, then I ignore them. I got a few good reviews from “I, Charles” but which also said that the language I used was too “high-brow” for an African refugee. I actually considered this when I wrote it – but the days of Sam Clements hard-wiring the dialects of slaves into the dialogue is over, and good riddance. Grapes of Wrath is virtually unreadable. Which brings me to my point – who are we to say that the inner thoughts of characters (and I write literary fiction), of people in their local languages, is any less eloquent than what we consider of our own inner musings. Empathy begins with the understanding of the equality of the human condition; my books are all about empathy.
How has your creation process improved over time?
I have become less fearful – I write the book the way it needs to be written. The way it demands to be written. Tip, don’t write for people you know – the work will be bad. Write as if nobody you know will read your book.
What were the best, worst and most surprising things you encountered during the entire process of completing your book(s)?
The best are the moments when it just flows. “I, Charles” is my best book – and it practically wrote itself. And it is grand. The worst is when it becomes hard, like blood dripping through your pen. Painful. The most surprising is what writing does for the writer. It makes you curious, and observant. I find myself looking up at a woman hanging laundry on her balcony; an old man playing chess in a park; a painter standing alone in a plaza by his for-sale paintings, and developing a story for each of them. The grand technicolor of human existence – that is what writing makes you conscious of.
Do you tend towards personal satisfaction or aim to serve your readers? Do you balance the two and how?
I don’t sell a lot – so if I was trying to write for others I’d be disappointed. That being said, of course I want to sell a million copies and stop doing my day job and write for a living. I write to take my experiences, unique as they probably are, and turn them into stories for people who won’t ever live them. But for myself, to leave some hint that I passed along the paths of this old planet – to capture a moment in time which can serve as a guide. The world is cyclical, everything has happened before and will happen again, “there is nothing new under the sun”. I want to write about that and capture it.
What role do emotions play in creativity?
The most important emotion for the writer is empathy. Can you put yourself into the shoes of your character. That is it, and it changes everything.
Do you have any creativity tricks?
Write poetry. Not because you like it – I actually hate poetry. But because its like exercise for your talent, weight lifting or cardio. It more than anything else forces you to think about words, language, tone and beats and structure and how to better write.
What are your plans for future books?
I am writing “The Unraveling”; I’m at 120,000 words so I’d better stop. Editing will start soon, as soon as I can get a bang-up ending. I usually write the ending first, so the fact that I failed in “The Unraveling” makes the novel undisciplined. I will have to go back and edit. After that in 2020 I think I will release my first book of poetry.