Questions about John Henry the Revelator:
Why did you decide to write this specific book?
I had the idea to write a book about the battles to pass a Federal anti-lynching law (we still don’t have one). I was researching the idea when the question of what if the first superhero was Black jumped up in my brain. Then all these scenes and characters started showing up. I feel like the book told me to write it.
What makes this book important to you?
I hope it can in some way add to someone’s understanding of race in America. The Constitution originally counted enslaved Black people as only 3/5th of a person and, even though slavery ended, we still treat them as only 3/5th of a person. Their lives are at significantly higher risk in any interaction with the police. They receive worse care from our medical system. They are hired less often and paid less money. A 2017 Boston Globe story found that white households in Boston had an average net worth of $250,000. For Black households that number was $8. Every time the Globe prints that they include the phrase “this is not a typo.” After World War II the GI Benefits law excluded Black soldiers. Racism is destroying this nation. I’m a writer and this novel is my very small effort to fight racism.
What do you want your readers to take away after reading this book?
I would love it if some white readers learned something more about the history and horror of racism in America. I would also love it if a Black reader felt they had read an honest depiction of racism in America.
Fun Questions about writing, reading, and being an author:
What is the first book that made you cry?
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. The death of Deets still gets me every time.
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
A little of both. I can feel really exhausted after a lot of writing, but I also feel really good.
What is your writing Kryptonite?
Depression, the Quicker Letter Downer ©! It will eat me alive.
Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?
I seriously thought about changing my name to Cornelius Byrne at one point because I was sick of being connected to my father all the time. If I ever do need a pseudonym, that’s the one I’ll use.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Just write, everything is a draft. Don’t obsess about getting it right the first time.
How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
I know I can do it now. A book no longer feels like Mount Everest. Also, I learned to write whatever scene was interesting to me at the moment. It doesn’t have to be written in order (As a writer, the author of this blog never writes in order).
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
About $15 for a Pilot Metropolitan fountain pen. The way I work is by first writing in long hand on yellow legal pads (the writer of this blog always writer her first draft longhand in notebooks!!!). This prevents me from going back to re-write. I write until I get to some point that feels substantial and then transfer it onto the computer. I didn’t try a fountain pen until I was in my late 40s but when I did…wow. For the first time writing by hand felt right.
What authors did you dislike at first but grew into?
I’m going to flip this – I really liked Isaac Asimov when I was 12-14. Now, I feel like it’s a real accomplishment if his characters make it all the way to two-dimensional.
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
Kalpa Imperial: The Greatest Empire That Never Was by Angélica Gorodischer, who I just found out died February 5th (she was 94). She’s Argentinian and Kalpa was her first book to be translated into English (by Ursula K. Leguin, no less). It’s an incredible impressionistic novel that tells the story of an empire in small scenes that may or not be connected to each other. It is epic in scope and narrow in focus (and short, it may be 200 pages). It’s magical realism with an emphasis on magical.
How do you select the names of your characters?
Some I just go into my email spam and look at the names there. Some I look at my bookshelf and take a first name from one writer and the last name from another. I also keep a list of names that I think of or come across and inspire me: Neon Mary’s bones lit up whenever she felt a wind blowing across the wizards’ graveyard.
What was your hardest scene to write?
Killing a character I’d really come to love (Oh, I've been there, done that). I didn’t know they’d have to die when they first walked into my book, but it became clear later on. And it’s a gruesome death. That said, I started writing a horror story and I love, love, love killing off the characters in it.
What is your favorite childhood book?
Harold and The Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson. It’s an amazing book about creativity and imagination. I still read it regularly.
What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
Focusing on one thing. I have a huge list of stories, many of which I’ve started, and I have a real hard time knowing which one I should be working on. As a result, a short story can take way longer to write than it needs to.
How long on average does it take you to write a book?
Judging by my first novel – about 30 years. I wrote a third of it in the mid-1990s and then got scared of going any farther. What scared me is that it’s a first-person narrative of a Black man and all I could see were the mistakes I could make. But the damn thing wouldn’t leave me alone. So, I went back to it in 2015 and finished the first draft in 2016 and the final in 2018. However, I wrote a novella in six months, so I hope the next one won’t take as long.
I, personally, look forward to what your next journey (book or story) will result in.
About Constantine von Hoffman:
After 25 years as a journalist, I spent a decade creating artisanal marketing content for large corporations. I am currently working as manservant to three elderly dogs and writing strange stories when they allow me the time.
From the review: “The characters, particularly Moses, are well drawn, and aspects of Moses’ journey, such as the way it’s covered in the media and his efforts to translate his grassroots movement into a political one … may remind readers of events in our own time. Overall, it’s a complex work that engages with an era that feels simultaneously remote and frightfully contemporary.”