Posted on 03/20/2019 at 08:00 AM by Sadye Scott-Hainchek
With a resume like Jeffrey K. Walker’s, you can’t blame the guy for taking a year off and just writing.
He’s been an attorney, law professor, bomber navigator, international consultant, and stockbroker; and in these roles, he has lived in three countries, visited another seventy, and moved nineteen times.
So it’s no surprise that when Walker’s wife suggested that he spend a year living his dream of writing fiction, he said yes.
But lest you think he’s grown soft — his novels are set around World War I, a time marked by the shock of violence and social change.
The first two volumes in his Sweet Wine of Youth trilogy are out and receiving critical acclaim (as well as reader praise); Walker found the time while working on the final piece to answer a few questions about his long writing journey.
SADYE: Would anyone who knew you solely as a child have expected you to eventually become a historical-fiction writer?
JEFFREY: Curiously, I had the chance to answer this question recently, back in my hometown for my fortieth high school reunion.
I hadn’t been back much since I’d gone off to university at eighteen.
The reunion was much more enjoyable than I’d dreaded, and I saw people I hadn’t seen since we were teenagers, some who went all the way back to kindergarten with me.
My hometown newspaper had run a feature on me and my books the year before, so most people knew I’d been publishing.
I have to say, no one expressed any great stunned surprise, no “YOU write novels?!?!? Har! Har! Har!”
One old friend — we’d been close as boys but had fallen out of touch decades ago — said, “This town was never gonna hold you, we all knew that.”
Mostly, I was overwhelmed by the interest, kindness, and support everyone gave me.
SADYE: With hindsight 20/20, would you have done anything differently as relates to your eventual fiction-writing career?
JEFFREY: Yes, I’d have started writing fiction much younger.
I’ve been writing professionally most of my adult life — both as a practicing attorney and a law professor. But that was about the most nonfiction I can imagine.
(Although some opposing counsel in the cases I’ve tried might hold that I’ve been writing fiction all along.)
I’ve long had an urge, a hankering to write fiction — really, since my university days, I suppose. But marriage, a career, three children, a new career — all got in the way.
I could have made time for fiction earlier, I suppose, but looking back, I remember being mostly tired all the time.
And to be honest, I’m not sure I was ready to write fiction until the last few years.
My novels are so informed by my own experiences, they couldn’t have existed thirty or twenty or even ten years ago.
SADYE: What have been the most surprising, most challenging, and most rewarding moments or themes of your writing career?
JEFFREY: The most surprising has to be how characters I invented take on personalities, make demands of me, express disappointment if I get lazy with them.
One of the most terrifying experiences I’ve had as a novelist was losing, for a few days, Will Parsons’s voice — a main character in my first book, None of Us the Same.
Most challenging is definitely first drafts.
Most rewarding is rewrites and revisions — it feels the way Michelangelo described sculpting as “freeing the figure from the stone.”
That chipping away and shaping and polishing process is marvelous when you’re certain there’s a fine story in there somewhere.
SADYE: What’s the biggest takeaway about World War I that you hope readers find in your books?
JEFFREY: To most Americans, the big event of the twentieth century was the Second World War.
I’m an odd American in that I disagree. WWII was the enormous final act to the Wagnerian-scale story of the First World War.
The Great War broke all the arrogant, self-satisfied assumptions the Victorians had accumulated around science and technological advancement and the universal benevolence of progress.
The First World War was the first industrial war where science and progress enabled mass production of violence and death on a truly unimaginable scale.
WWI taught mankind humility — if only for a little while — and that we now had within our power the means to destroy everything.
I wanted to take this tectonic event in human history and humanize it, relate the incomprehensible enormity of it at a human, relatable scale.
The war breaks my characters, each in their own way, but never completely enough to extinguish their basic humanity, even in death.
SADYE: What other era in history do you find most fascinating or absolutely critical to our understanding of the modern world?
JEFFREY: I’d have to say the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.
Again, as an American, Enlightenment thought is enshrined in our foundational documents. All the Founding Fathers were educated sons of the Enlightenment.
The social and cultural ferment of the period was incredible, perhaps second only to the Italian Renaissance.
The social media of the day consisted of the proliferating newspapers, together with thousands upon thousands of leaflets and broadsides, all of which were read and re-read and argued over in hundreds of coffee houses. Sound familiar?
But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Enlightenment was that people — the philosophes and scientists — were at last confident enough to leave God behind.
Beginning with Thomas Hobbes in the seventeenth century, the Enlightenment thinkers believed with unshakeable confidence that through the application of reason to observation, we could find the answers, reach the stars.
We had only to ask the right questions.
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