Jar of Pennies: An Interview with Author John Yearwood
Jar of Pennies, author John Yearwood's latest novel, follows a riveting story of murder and corruption in the small town of Whitmire, Texas, in the summer of 1979. A fascinating ensemble cast and alluring authenticity at the forefront makes Jar of Pennies an incredibly immersive read. It cannot be overstated how much Yearwood's skillful writing makes you feel as though you are in the center of it all.
To learn more about the story behind the story, read A Good Book To End The Day’s interview with the author below.
Tell us about Jar of Pennies and the inspiration behind the novel.
Jar of Pennies tells the story of a series of murders that terrified East Texas in the late 1970s, during a period just before the digital revolution and at the end of a century of post-Civil War rage, loss, and racism. I like to think of the story as a biography of murder, not a murder mystery. It’s not a “whodunit” but a “whydunit,” with elements of Southern Gothic and noir, but also with humor and nobility of character. I was especially interested in how the unique culture of East Texas—a heavily wooded section of Texas about the size of England—coped with terror and horror. I have wanted to write this story, based on actual events, since I was a reporter in the area and then a classroom teacher and professor. Once I started, the thousands of stories I remembered from my years living there seemed to bubble up with irrepressible urgency, and after almost four decades of thinking about them I realized they had sorted themselves into a pattern that could make a good novel. Specifically, the inspiration was the murder of a young mother and her three-year-old child by a neighbor who was trying to raid her refrigerator. He hid their bodies, parts of their skeletons were found, and he was executed by the State of Texas. Around that rib of a story, I spun the rest of my tale of life in East Texas at the critical American social watershed of the late 1970s-early 1980s.
Your story examines how fear is a significant impediment to social change, particularly in more rural areas. Why do you think that is? And, as a society, what can we do to combat that fear?
Fear is caused by ignorance or by intimidation. Ignorance can be solved by public education. Intimidation is actually an art form in East Texas. First, let’s talk about ignorance.
If you have a school system that focuses on memorization, discipline, obedience, dress codes, and state-mandated trivia tests, you promote ignorance. Education means teaching kids how to think, specifically how to think critically, not how to conform. If you lack the ability to reason out the consequences of your actions, to reason from behavior to outcomes, then you have not been educated. In Jar of Pennies, the villain Jesse Grinder is a school dropout who is condemned to a life of reaction instead of reason, which condemns him to a life sentence of ignorance. He survives just long enough to be executed by the authorities of his state. His counterpart in the novel is Charles Henniker, a Black retired Air Force colonel who has come to realize through his wide experience that education is the only way to prevent war, and specifically, educating students to think. Henniker gets a lot of pushback from school officials for his classes promoting critical thinking skills instead of memorization of random facts and tidbits, but his students quickly come to love the classes where he promotes their creativity and where they get to experiment with ideas, unlike their other classes. Henniker, though a rookie teacher despite his experience as a military hero, is Jesse Grinder’s exact opposite. He is thoughtful, logical, knowledgeable, and mature.
Intimidation, the second source of fear, is an interesting behavior in East Texas. Like judging whether a dog will bite you, you need to have some skill at reading both tone of voice and body language when you are dealing with others. As a male, my experience is almost entirely with male interactions, so I really can’t speak to what it’s like to live in a world of women. Certainly, intimidation is present between women, but let’s leave them out of this discussion. Men in East Texas must always put on a front of being too tough to bully. In most exchanges between men, everything from the firmness of the handshake to the tilt of the chin implies “don’t mess with me.” But once you go through this little ritual, you can sit elbow to elbow with someone at a coffee counter and enjoy a good visit. It’s kind of strange, actually, that every encounter starts out this way, and is usually meant to be good-humored and even friendly. You spend a few minutes joking with one another, avoiding anything serious, while going through the human social equivalent of the canine ritual of smelling butts. Moreover, you may go through that ritual every day with the same people. Knowing how much you want to let your guard down is the skill—too much, and even the plumber will not do the job you’re trying to hire him for. Too little, and the plumber will do the job in a hurry, and may do it wrong but doesn’t care. So, in every interaction you must achieve a kind of balance between being just friendly enough and just intimidating enough to get anything done. Boys who grow up there learn this balancing act from thousands of examples, but strangers moving in can feel threatened. Indeed, that’s the point. If you feel threatened, then you shouldn’t be there in the first place, and now you know it’s going to take some effort to fit in. In the meantime, my advice? Intimidation is just a bluff. Don’t take it seriously.
Of course, sometimes, that dog will bite.
A third source of fear is actual physical danger. In Jar of Pennies, I use Old Coil, an ancient rattlesnake, as a metaphor for this sort of fear. Like a rattlesnake, fear may strike you from any number of directions: car wrecks, home fires, icy winters, falling trees, wild animals. I sold my car to a local man and he and his wife wanted to celebrate the purchase by driving south to Beaumont for a dinner in a real restaurant. It had been raining, and unfortunately the ground had become soft, and the hundred-foot-tall pines had loosened in the soil. A gentle breeze kicked up as “Honeybear”—his CB radio moniker—and his wife drove south, and suddenly, just as they crested a little rise in the road, trees back in the woods out of sight began falling against one another, dominoeing toward the highway. At 60 mph, Honeybear did not see a pine tree lying across the highway at windshield level, and he was killed. His wife, somehow, survived. This kind of physical threat happens all the time, but is not predictable, nor is it the result of human cunning or rage. Generally, humans in East Texas have learned to deal with most of these threats from nature, but, as John McPhee points out, nature has time on her side and will eventually win any contest with any human. If you live in East Texas, you are unwise to ignore threats from nature—snake bites, falling logs, poisonous insects, deadly wild animals, poisonous plants, and all the rest.
What message do you hope readers take away from the novel?
Jar of Pennies is not about conveying a message. The novel is about the story it tells. However, some readers will appreciate how some of the story illustrates the failure of education, which leads to ignorance, to superstition, and to violence by people incapable of reasoning from behavior to consequences. The same story of ignorance plays out in the relation between White and Black characters, with the predominant White attitudes being held over from the Civil War era. Despite these various examples of ignorance and violence, most of the people of East Texas strive to get through life with humor and kindness, and with hope for a better tomorrow.
How did you celebrate once your book was finished?
“Finishing” a novel is not exactly what it seems. You write the final chapter. Or sometimes you have already written the final chapter, but you need to add additional chapters somewhere, but anyway, you finally decide you’ve put in and taken out enough stuff to make a decent story. Then you go back through and start over and re-read for errors, typos, character consistency, and timeline. When that’s done, you call your editor and get him or her to go over the work independently looking for errors, typos, character consistency, and storyline consistency. Second pair of eyes, you know. They always see stuff you missed. When your editor sends it back, you go through the manuscript again making all the changes. Then you read it again, just to be sure you’ve got it like you want it. Then you send it off to your book designer, who creates a cover and lays out the pages. Then you read the book designer’s version, partly to be sure he hasn’t dropped a page or chapter. Then you get it published.
While it is queued up for printing, you schedule with an audio studio to record the book, which takes about 25 hours in studio. It takes some kind of superman to read for more than four hours without losing your voice, so you’re looking at multiple days. After you’ve done the recording, your audio engineers need to go through and balance all the sound, get rid of as many hisses and pops as they can, and produce a final version. When that’s done, you listen all the way through to be sure the audiobook is what you want it to be.
When I got to that point, I celebrated, you can bet I celebrated. And here’s how: I started writing the next novel.
Do you have any other projects in the works at this time?
I have “finished” one novel set in Cupertino that will make an entertaining story, but I’m sitting on it. That’s my reserve novel, a kind of Neal Stephenson-style thriller involving a fourteen-year-old boy and a smartphone app that detects lies. That one was fun, but it’s dated and needs revision. Also, I think a good editor could make it better. Still, it’s my ace in the hole. If a publisher says they want another manuscript quickly, I have that one to pull out, rough up, tousle the hair, and send off. Meanwhile, as I was writing Jar of Pennies, I thought of two more novels to follow it using some of the same characters and locales. The one I’m working on is provisionally titled “The Golden Pine,” and involves an embezzlement. A second novel with the same locale in East Texas is called “The Slab,” and involves a murder and some misguided law enforcement officials. I also have a novel underway set five hundred years in the future, and one about the colonization of Mars which might not be that far away. I’ll finish “The Golden Pine” before I proceed on either of those but may never get back to those if I write on “The Slab” next.
I have ADHD. Can you tell? I’m also old enough for the purchase of a banana to be a leap of faith, and running out of years to be lazy about writing. You could say that I’m working hard trying to stay ahead of the scythe.
What does literary success look like to you?
I’m too old, and I’ve done too many other things, to win the Nobel Prize in literature, but I think most people would agree that’s a fairly significant testament to literary success. What literary success looks like to me, barring the miraculous award of the Nobel Prize, is to be recognized as a good author and to have people ask for my book in bookstores.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
It took me more than fifty years to earn enough money to pay my expenses while I learned to be a writer. The number one piece of advice I have for aspiring writers is to earn money. The story about British poets starving in icy garrets is not really all imaginary: keep your day job until you can afford the time it takes to write.
Second, once you can afford to do it, start writing and write on a schedule. Go to the “office” every day, put in the time. Hemingway pointed out that the hardest thing for a writer to do is keep his butt in the chair, and he was right. The temptations are boundless and persistent—protect your writing time no matter what. For me, I can write about five hours a day before that much creativity just wears me plumb out. That’s when I go back and edit, or exercise, or eat, or pet the dog, or check to be sure the family is still alive and nuclear war has not yet fire balled London and Seattle. Get in there and write. Janet Evanovich starts her day at 5 a.m. with her cat in her lap and a cup of hot tea. She stays at it until noon when she makes a quick sandwich. Every day. J.K. Rowling, when she was finishing the Harry Potter epic, secretly checked herself into an Edinburgh hotel where she stayed locked up for months, avoiding distractions. Her long-suffering family carried on, refusing to let anybody else in the world know where she was. You’re a writer. Write.
Stephen King, who famously said “the first million words are just practice,” writes a thousand words a day, every day, including Thanksgiving and Christmas. Although I have written thousands of news stories, editorials, columns, and academic papers, I have discovered that none of that prepared me for writing fiction. King is absolutely correct, and I learn something every single day about composing sentence structure, conveying mood, choosing tone, finding the right words. You will not be an overnight success. It takes a lot of work, a lot of rewriting, a lot of revision, a lot of effort, and a lot of time. Sure, like that one kid in your class at school who could always make an “A” without putting in a lick of work, there are some people who just can do it. I am not one of them. So, my third piece of advice is, keep learning. Make every sentence you write an opportunity to improve your use of language and to hone the precision of your phrasing. In one of Terry Pratchett’s novels, the scythe of Death is remade and finally sharpened to its infinitely sharp edge—sharp enough to cut the soul from a body—by holding it up to the wind for final honing. Make your craft that sharp.
How can readers keep in touch with you?
I also enjoy communicating directly with readers, so they can email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org