Mary Akers: Hi, TJ. Thanks so much for agreeing to talk with me about your newly released novel, Miracles, Inc (official release date Feb 1st, but available for order today!), which I very much enjoyed. (The ending took hold of me and would not let go!) First off, congratulations! I understand this is your first novel–your first published book–and your acknowledgments section has quite an interesting “hook” of its own. Would you care to say anything about that?
T.J. Forrester: Thank you, Mary. I’m excited about the opportunity to share my thoughts with you and your readers. Yes, this is my first novel, and I’ve walked around in a daze since Kerri Kolen at Simon & Schuster offered acceptance. I prefer to allow the acknowledgment to stand on its own, but will say I owe a debt to one of the kindest people I’ve ever met.
MA: Your main character, Vernon Oliver, really fascinates me. For one thing, he is totally, brutally honest with himself, he’s honest as a narrator when speaking to his readers, but he is profoundly, unashamedly dishonest in his professional life. I don’t know that I even have a question formed, but would you care to comment on that observation?
TJ: That’s an astute observation and one I had not considered. Vernon won’t steal so much as a nickle from his employer, he comes to work mostly on time, he loved his little sister, he pressures his employer to give his actors a raise, he visits his parents, and he’s devoted to his lover. These attributes, when taken together, describe a fairly decent human being. Why then, is he capable of such dishonesty in his professional life? One reason, I think. His hatred for God allows him to compartmentalize his morals.
MA: Ah, that makes sense. I also found that inability to keep his promise to his terminally ill little sister Lucy to be so ironic and resonant in his later life as a famous faith healer. How do you think that unfulfilled promise affected his relationships with the others in his life, particularly with his partner Rickie?
TJ: One of the things I admire about Vernon is he is capable of love after the death of his sister. I’ve been through that kind of loss at a young age, and the bricks I stacked around my heart to protect myself from the pain took years to dismantle. Vernon is able to form a relationship a year after Lucy’s death, but there is a desperation to the love that I doubt he would have had without the tragedy. (Having failed one love, he is determined not to fail another.) Rickie, abandoned at birth, demands a fierce loyalty in her lover, so she and Vernon are a perfect match.
MA: Yes, they are. I enjoyed seeing their relationship change and grow throughout the book. Speaking of changes, this story took a number of twists and turns that surprised me (in a good way), and then other events that I kept thinking would come back to haunt Vernon never did (but they kept me guessing right up to the end). Could you speak to how you plot when writing a novel? I know there are many techniques–time lines, outlines, color-coded sticky notes, and even random napkin scrawls. Could you give us a peek into your unique process?
TJ: I’m one of those writers who can’t plot in advance. That’s not exactly correct. I can plot in advance but when I try it the story comes out piecemeal, as though I’ve stuffed it into little jars, lined them up, and said that’s a novel.
I began Miracles, Inc. knowing Vernon was on death row and that was pretty much it. I wrote scene by scene, chapter by chapter, gave the characters some rein, and the plot revealed itself a little at a time. This type of process wastes a lot of time because the characters sometimes lead me on unproductive tangents, but trusting my intuition is the only way I can create a seamless and organic story.
MA: And on a final, conceptual note, Carly’s role in the story really intrigued me. I understand her purpose in terms of making the plot take a serious turn, but to me, she seemed to stand for all the unrealistic hopes we harbor in our lives. What role do you see her playing in Vernon’s life? If you had to assign her a purpose in this story, what would it be?
TJ: Carly appeared because I wanted to spice up the prison scenes. I wish I could say I intentionally created a symbolic character, but that part of the story just turned out that way. Perhaps this is an instance of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. I’m sorry I can’t offer more insight. For me, the act of producing the story is a mystical experience and there is a whole lot I don’t understand about the process.
What role does she play? She offers him hope where there is none, an ironic circumstance, given he made a living on preying on the hopes of others. What purpose does she have? After this discussion it appears she takes on another dimension for the reader. A symbol of unrealistic hope works for me.
MA: Excellent, T.J.. Thanks so much for sharing your time with us. And congratulations again on the release of Miracles, Inc.. I hope lots of readers pick it up! (Great cover, too!)