08 July 2010

Spotlight On . . . Justin Kramon

Welcome to the Literary Road Trip and my Spotlight On . . . Justin Kramon. I am so pleased to introduce you to Justin because I think you'll be hearing a lot about him this summer. His debut novel, Finny, will be released next week, and there is already quite a bit of buzz.

Although Justin is not a native Pennsylvanian, he went to college outside of Philadelphia and now calls the city home. When I ask the authors spotlighted for the Literary Road Trip to write a guest post, I give them free reign, and I'm always curious to see how Pennsylvania plays into their writing or their memories.

Some scenes in the novel Finny take place in Philadelphia. A smart idea, you might think, because Justin is familiar with the city. Or is he?

Write What You Know . . . or Not

The idea that you should write what you know has always made me nervous. It's embarrassing how little I know. Whenever I'm invited to play Trivial Pursuit, I fake a groin injury. If someone asks me a question that requires any kind of practical experience in the answer, I begin to cough, or if that doesn't work, I'll cry. I've gone into labor to avoid admitting I don't know how to get to Main Street.

To compound this problem, I don't enjoy research. The word archival gives me a rash, and if someone even points at an encyclopedia, I need to swallow half a bottle of Tums.

I have very little to offer in the way of useful knowledge or advice, and even if I did have anything helpful to say, I'd probably spill something hot on myself before I had a chance to say it.

So you can see why writing a novel was hard for me.

I live in Philadelphia now, and I went to college just outside the city, but I wrote most of my novel while I was living in New York. There's an entire section of the book when my main character, Finny (a woman—you can guess how much I know about that) is living and going to school at a small college outside Philadelphia. I remembered some details about the school and the area, but honestly, my picture was fuzzy. And I didn't want to break up the writing with a lot of research trips back to Philly, to jog my memory about how long it took to get to Center City on the train or what stores were on the corner of Broad and Chestnut.

What I had, more than specific facts, were impressions of the place: the dining hall that for some reason reminded me of a medieval dungeon, the sunny lawn in front of the admissions office, the sound outside my door of a crazy student who used to ride his bike toward the wall and then slam on the brakes when his nose was only inches from the concrete blocks, a feeling of both excitement and disappointment about what lay ahead of me. Those are the kinds of details I have to go on when I write about a place.

My theory was that I would write the whole novel, then go back and research the details I didn't remember, so the book would be accurate.

There's one scene in particular I remember writing, a scene in which someone very close to Finny dies, and Finny's family has to go into a funeral home to make arrangements for the burial. I actually tell this as a comic scene in the book. The undertakers are a married couple who alternately sneeze on the corpse and complain about how insensitive the other one is. As a finale, one of the undertakers passes a bill for the funeral over the counter to Finny's mom and asks her to swipe her card, which to me (perhaps because I have something wrong with me) was both a funny and a tragic moment in Finny's life.

Afterward, I thought about it. This wasn't the way funeral homes worked. Bills and receipts weren't passed over the counter like at a deli. I told myself that when I finished the book, I would start calling around to some funeral homes, find an undertaker who would talk to me, walk me through the whole process of how a grieving family lays a loved one to rest, so that I could get every detail right.

Then I finished the book. I went back and reread the scene. I decided not to change it.

It could have been out of sheer laziness—always a strong factor in my decision making. But I like to think that in this case it might have been something else. As I reread the scene, I realized that, by bending the facts, I could actually say something truer about people's selfishness in the face of others' grief, about loneliness and loss, and also do it in a way that was consistent with the bright and optimistic tone of the book. I thought the fiction said more than the facts.

I went back to my college recently, since I live in the area now and it's not a long drive. It turned out I was right about some things: the dining hall did look like a dungeon, the lawn was as bright as I'd remembered. But the carpet in the library was a completely different shade than the horrible orange I'd had in my mind. I wondered if they'd changed it, or if it had just been my imagination.

Thank you so much Justin. I like the way your imagination works, and I was chuckling over the comparison of the funeral home to a deli. I am also impressed with the scope of Finny in both the time frame and the geographical range you cover.

I have Finny on my summer reading list, and I can't wait to get to it. I love coming-of-age stories in all their manifestations, and I think it's going to be a treat to watch Finny grow up.

To learn more on the novel, watch the book trailer.

Finny at Powell's
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Justin Kramon is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, he has published stories in Glimmer Train, Story Quarterly, Boulevard, Fence, TriQuarterly, and others. He has received honors from the Michener-Copernicus Society of America, Best American Short Stories, the Hawthornden International Writers' Fellowship, and the Bogliasco Foundation. He teaches at Gotham Writers' Workshop in New York City and at the Iowa Young Writers' Studio. He lives in Philadelphia. To learn more about Justin and his novel Finny, be sure to visit his website.

For more posts in the Literary Road Trip project, visit the LRT link page. Thanks to Jenn of Jenn's Bookshelves for hosting this fabulous project.


Julie P. 7/8/10, 7:31 AM  

I loved this guest post. I just finished FINNY a few days ago (and really liked it) and I love getting some insight into some of the scenes.

Molly 7/8/10, 7:54 AM  

GREAT guest post!

I loved hearing about all the good intentions of going back to revise for accuracy, and discovering that creative license illustrates truth better. What a marvelous lesson!

Jenn's Bookshelves 7/8/10, 8:25 AM  

Loved this guest post! FINNY is also on my to read list; I can't wait to get to it!

Sheila (Bookjourney) 7/8/10, 8:33 AM  

Finny sounds good and one I would probably enjoy as I too like the coming of age books.

bermudaonion 7/8/10, 9:31 AM  

I had the pleasure of meeting Justin at the BBC reception and he's a sweetheart! I'm looking forward to reading Finny and really hope his book sees great success.

Jennifer-Girls Gone Reading 7/8/10, 10:12 AM  

Great post! Can't wait to read Finny, and that book trailer is fantastic!

wisteria 7/8/10, 10:26 AM  

Justin you are too funny! Swiping the credit card at the funeral parlor is just hysterical. I am so glad you didn't opt for reality and change it. I am running out to get this book. I'm sure it will be as entertaining as this write-up was. Great post..chuckling still.

Sandy Nawrot 7/8/10, 10:35 AM  

What a charming trailer, and an even more charming author! It is somehow reassuring that not all novelists are God's gift to Trivial Pursuit or just love research. He's my kinda guy!

Justin Kramon 7/8/10, 11:00 AM  

Thanks so much to the Beth Fish Reads blog for publishing this piece, and thanks to everyone for all your nice comments. I'm delighted to finally be sharing this book with readers, after having it in my head for so long. (You start to feel a little crazy when you're laughing at people whom no one else can see.)

Julie, I really appreciate what you said about the book.

Molly, thanks so much, it's true that I always have all these good intentions as a writer, and then I have to kind of weed through them to get to what I really want to say.

Jenn, thanks, and I'm glad you're still looking forward to the book after reading my silly rant.

Sheila, I also love coming-of-age novels, and writing FINNY really came out of wanting to capture the feeling of enchantment I had from some of my favorite books, but maybe with a slightly different twist.

Bermuda Onion, also was great to meet you at the BBC, and I hope we'll cross paths again soon. Thanks so much for the good wishes about FINNY.

Jennifer, I'm so glad you enjoyed the trailer. It was fun making it.

Wisteria, so nice to hear from you, and I'm glad that others share my sick sense of humor.

Sandy, thanks for your note. If anything, I think that maybe I'm God's gift to awkward social situations. Everyone has a talent.

Shelley 7/8/10, 6:56 PM  

Ah, I am buzzless, but I am glad this pleasant author has a buzz. Sounds like he deserves it.

Justin Kramon 7/8/10, 11:52 PM  

Thanks, Shelley. I took a look at your blog, and your work looks wonderful.

Beth Hoffman 7/9/10, 9:14 AM  

What a terrific guest post! Since we all know how much I love coming of age stories and eccentric characters (lol!), I will put this book on my TBR list.

Donna 7/9/10, 4:10 PM  

If Finny is as amusing to read as your post, I will be in a very good mood after I finish. Faking a groin injury to get out of Trivial Pursuit was hilarious to me! That's at the very beginning; so you know I was chuckling throughout the entire post. Finny is on my reading list, too. Thanks.

Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy) 7/10/10, 8:38 AM  

I've seen Finny mentioned on several blogs, but now that I know Justin is a Philly guy (and one that knows how to interact with bloggers in the comments, no less!), I'm definitely going to make a point to pick this up. Thanks to both of you for a great post!

(And as someone who has either attended or worked for or had her husband work for several small colleges in the Philadelphia suburbs, I'm dying to know which one this is.)

Justin Kramon 7/10/10, 10:37 AM  

Thanks so much, Beth! I'm also really looking forward to reading your book.

Donna, I'm so glad that my foolishness is funny to some people. If you ever need any more excuses to get out of Trivial Pursuit, you know who to talk to.

Melissa, thanks for your note! I went to Swarthmore College, but I've never sneezed on a corpse.

softdrink 7/10/10, 7:06 PM  

I love hearing how lazy other people are...I might have to read this just out of solidarity. Well, plus the fact that it sounds funny. :-D

Ben 7/15/10, 2:33 PM  


I just wanted to let you and your readers know that an excerpt of Finny is available at http://pandeliterary.com/authors/justin-kramon/.

Hope this is useful!



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