Welcome to my weekly Author Spotlight. I’ve asked a bunch of my author friends to answer a set of interview questions, and to share their latest work.
Today, John-Michael Lander – John-Michael Lander has relied on his experiences as a competitive diver and traveling the world to write Surface Tension. He has had a diverse life that includes competitive diving, coaching, acting (theatre, film, and television), teaching, drawing, and writing.
Thanks so much, John-Michael, for joining me!
J. Scott Coatsworth: As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
John-Michael Lander: As I child I went through many phases of what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wanted to be Jesus, until I had nightmares after watching the crucifixion. I wanted to be an actor, singer, dancer, astronaut, circus performer, and an Olympian. The one thing that has remained as a dream is to become a published author.
JSC: When did you know you wanted to write, and when did you discover that you were good at it?
JML: I remember always writing as far back as I can remember. Before knowing how to write, I drew pictures to tell my stories. I had to have a notebook all the time and I created little scenarios, stories, and altered my favorite fairytales. I would then draw pictures to go with the stories and present them as gifts.
I have never really considered myself good at writing, I just knew I had stories I wanted to share. I think the first time I thought that there was potential was when I my high school English teacher, Mrs. Townsend, requested a meeting with me regarding my writing assignment on Alexander the Great. I wrote an extended narrative love poem from Hephaestion’s view point while on his deathbed. I remember standing in front of her sweating and slightly trembling because I was so afraid I was in trouble. She questioned my approach and why I focused on Hephaestion. I told her I had a dream about it and it was so real. She responded with, “Well, whatever it took, I’m pleased by it. I was hoping to have your permission to enter it into the Scholastics Writing Contest.” All I said was, “Do you think it’s good enough?” She reassured me by saying, “I wouldn’t have asked if it wasn’t.”
JSC: If I were a Hollywood producer about to put your book on the big screen, who would you want me to cast as the leads? Why? And can we have some pictures?
JML: I would want Randy Shelly or an unknown teen actor to play young David Matthew. And, of course I would play the older David.
Zac Efron or Tom Daley would be my dream choices, play Mark Bradley, and a blond version of Donny Lewis or Cody Kearsley for Giovanni Pizzini.
JSC: How would you describe your writing style/genre?
JML: I would describe my writing style as narrative fiction. I love to have the main character tell his/her story in the first person. I tend to thrive in writing about situations that appear to be ugly or grim and find the beauty and love within it. My characters are survivors and find a ways to win.
The genre runs from Young Adult (coming of age) to Adult with gay themes. Sometimes the theme has subtle gay overtones and sometimes blatant eroticism.
JSC: If you could sit down with one other writer, living or dead, who would you choose, and what would you ask them?
JML: I am so sorry for not being a complete conformist, or wanting to follow directions, but I have to share my one writer that is living and one that is deceased. I know, I know. But here you go:
The one writer I would love to sit down with that is living is Patricia Nell Warren. When I read The Front Runner, it was one of those moments that changed my view of me and the world surrounding around me. I fell so in love with her character, Billy Sive, in the book, that I literally wanted to be him and experience the love he had with Harlan. I mourned for weeks after the book ended (I screen tested for the part twice while pursuing my acting career in Hollywood.). I remember heaving with tears and swearing to myself that I wanted to create a story that moved people. I devoured everything she wrote. First, I would thank her for writing such a beautiful love story and breaking barriers to publish it. Then, I would want to know every detail about the back ground in developing such a moving work of art.
The one writer I would love to sit down with that is deceased in Oscar Wild. The Portrait of Dorian Gray ranks as one of the bravest works during a time when homosexuality was a crime and scandalous blackmailing was common. I have always been interested in history and historical events. I would ask him, “How did you find the courage to write such a powerful story, when everything was informing you not to?”
JSC: What was your first published work? Tell me a little about it.
JML: My first published work, Richard, was for an on-line publication. Richard came about when I was attending Wright State University and was conducting research on male students who prostituted themselves to pay for college. I literally followed one young man, fell in love and ended up with a broken heart. The story follows the narrator and the decision to compromise his morals and upbringing and following Richard or break away. To me, it is a beautiful and bittersweet story.
JSC: What’s your greatest weakness as a writer?
JML: This is another one of those questions I cringe when I am asked to think about it. My greatest weakness is being Dyslexic. It has been a challenge all my life. When I was a kid, I had no idea what was wrong with me. I was too embarrassed to even share it with my parents, so I would go into my room and memorize the chapters of the homework by writing everything out in a notebook. I would memorize the chapters enough in case I was called on to read the following day. I equated this challenge with being unworthy and stupid. Even today, I dread being asked to read my work in front of people. I am working on this by actually doing live videos of readings on facebook.
JSC: What’s your writing process?
JML: I am really afraid of this question because I know I would never be able to teach my process in an educational setting. My stories come to my mind through dreams (during the day or night). I sketch out the idea as soon as I can. I then have to find pictures to represent the main characters faces and bodies. I have to determine if the two would look good together (This may extend from my passion for paper dolls as a child). There must be a sexual attraction. Then I write scenes, ideas, and patch work them together much like making a quilt.
I create sketches of the characters’ fears, disabilities (mentally and physical), their favorite music, traumas, emotional baggage, and anything uniquely belonging to them. I find that I end up doing a lot of research into psychological and emotions issues that may be hidden from the surface. I research how the character would use his hands and body based on these issues. I thrive of subtleties that can give the reader hints throughout the story.
I try and listen to the character(s) voices and follow the direction they demand, otherwise I am plagued with writer’s block. I have to have a clear visual of the setting and locations and I write every detail I can.
I then place the characters in the setting and start incorporating their motivation, desires, and needs. Sometimes, I have no idea where the scene will go or even if the scene will work in the composition of the whole novel, but I always find valuable information even if the scene is not included.
JSC: What pets are currently on your keyboard, and what are their names? Pictures?
JML: I am obsessed with my Boston Terriers: Bella, Barkley, Bailey, and Bryn. The 4B’s are a constant reminder of how fun life can be if we allow ourselves to live in the moment. They are literally little children. I love to watch them explore and discover things with such innocence.
JSC: What are you working on now, and when can we expect it?
JML: I am editing a historical novel entitled, Spandau Ballet, set in a holocaust concentration camp:
“Hans Klein has his future at his fingertips with becoming a world renowned concert pianist. His plans are derailed when his infatuation with an Olympic Swimming hopeful causes him to join Hitler’s Youth Movement, and ultimately leads him the love of his life at a concentration camp.”
I have always been fascinated by the survivors of the holocaust and the amazing love stories that continue to come out of such a horrific time period. I will be shopping it around, yet Page Publishing has taken an unofficial interest in it. I would like to have it available by the spring 2018.
I am also starting the second book to Surface Tension that follows David Matthew’s life into the Hollywood Years.
And now for John-Michael’s new book: Surface Tension:
The springboard finals find David leading the best divers in the world, but his internal struggles try to derail his competitive psyche. David must silence the voices in his head to perform a near-perfect final dive and change his life forever. Returning home to Aulden, Ohio, David faces the reality that people aren’t what they seem.
In August 2016, David agrees to Dr. Warner’s unethical form of therapy. Reflecting on the year he turned sixteen, David discovered he had the God-given talent, determination, and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Several things stand between him and a gold medal at the 1979 World Games Diving Championships: his age, inexperience, and his family’s secrets.
Sandefjord Natatorium, Tønsberg, Norway, July 1979
“David Matthew, USA, will be doing his final dive, a front three-and-a-half somersault in the tuck position.”
My nerves flared up again as my belly smack in practice replayed itself in detail. But it didn’t unnerve me. I touched the bruises that were yellowing on my chest, stomach, and thighs. I felt like a warrior, confident and strong. I belonged here, and it was time to show everyone. I realized that this experience was once in a lifetime. Everything that Dr. Don, Giovani, Patti, Mark, Dad, Mom, and Caine have said and done showed me that anything was possible.
The whistle sounded.
I was in control and focused. The hurdle was high and powerful, and the compression of the board was smooth and easy. The recoil sent me toward the ceiling, and my spins were fast. I clearly saw the water and stretched for the bottom. I sliced an entrance without a splash. It felt good.
As I broke the surface of the water, the stadium was dead silent. No one was moving. As I swam to the side, I felt everyone’s eyes on me. Patti stood by the pool with a shocked expression.
Maybe my dive wasn’t as good as I thought it was.
Everything was in slow motion and garbled. As I went to my camp, Dr. Don watched me; Mark’s hands covered his mouth; Giovanni was silent; and Andy and Megan wouldn’t look at me.
I grabbed my towels and bag and rushed to the locker room, throwing everything on the bench as hard as I could.
I took a stance, looked at the ceiling, and asked, “Why, God? Why can’t I win?” The rage rushed up from the pit of my stomach. “When is it my turn? When do I get to be special?” I started shaking as my face burned and my eyes blurred. “Why do I always come so close and then have it taken away from me?” I pounded the locker door with a closed fist. “Haven’t I paid the price? Haven’t I done everything that was asked of me? Why can’t you ever let me win?” Hot liquid ran down my cheeks as I pressed my face against the cool metal of the locker. “Why do I always let everything go? Why can’t I be worthy enough to win?”
A large gasp, followed by a thunder of cheers and claps, rang from the pool area. All I could imagine was that Mark defended his title or Hasse had made history in his home country. I knew I should be happy and excited, but I could’ve performed better, I could’ve been more prepared, I could’ve been more focused.
“Here you are. Why you hiding in here?” Giovanni smiled as usual. “Why your face so red?” He took a step closer, “David, why you crying?”
I quickly wiped my face, “I’m not crying.”
“Yes, I can see. You should be happy.” He placed his hand on my shoulder.
“I know, but I wanted to win. I didn’t think I really cared about winning until it was all over and then I realized that I really did want to win. I never identified with that feeling before,” I said.
“Please don’t laugh at me,” I asked.
“Why not? You being ridiculous. You are so much like my brother.” He leaned against the locker, facing me. He looked deep into my eyes and then chuckled again, “You don’t know, do you?”
“Know what? How I totally embarrassed myself out there? I wasn’t able to hold it together, and I melted under the pressure!” I pounded the locker again.
He grabbed my hand to stop it. “You must see for yourself.”
I felt the blood drain from my face. “What?”
Giovanni just smiled and nodded his head. “Pull yourself together, and go look at the scoreboard.”
“Giovanni,” a voice called from the door, “dobbiamo andare.”
“Sarò li!” Giovanni called back. “I must be going. I wanted to find you to congratulate you and say good-bye.”
“Are you leaving?” I asked.
“Yes, I go back to Italia now, since I’m not diving platform. I must prepare for wedding.”
“Whose wedding?” I asked.
Giovanni smiled broadly, “Mine.”
“What?” I was confused.
I thought he liked me. I must have misunderstood his affections for me. I was sure he was the one, the love of my life. He understood me, he was kind to me, and yet he never pressured me with sex. I had this whole fantasy of moving to Italy and being with him forever.
“No.” I wanted to keep him here.
“I brought you something.” He pulled a small plastic box from his duffel bag. “I want to give this to you.” He handed it to me.
The plastic box protected a silver medal.
“I won this at our Olympic trials last month. I want to give it to you to bring to Moscow Olympics and give it back,” he said.
“Giovanni, I couldn’t,” I said.
“You can, and we’ll be friends forever,” he smiled.
“But I thought you…” I couldn’t finish, maybe because I was embarrassed for assuming that he felt for me the way I was feeling for him.
His eyes revealed pain and compassion. “You’re my little brother. I love you like a brother.” He wrapped his arms around me and pulled me into his chest.
“Giovanni!” a voice rang from the door.
“Si, io vengo,” he called back. “I have to go. I am so proud of you. Promise me to make the USA team, and we’ll meet up in August in Moscow next year.” Giovanni kissed both of my cheeks and ran out of the locker room.
John-Michael Lander has relied on his experiences as a competitive diver and traveling the world to write Surface Tension. He has had a diverse life that includes competitive diving, coaching, acting (theatre, film, and television), teaching, drawing, and writing.
He was accepted in the Institute of Children Literature and Long Ridge Writers Group. His Masters’ dissertation was How Sexual Orientation Effects Male High School Students, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Education in Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment.
Artist instructor of Autism in Shakespeare for the Human Race Theatre Company in Dayton after teaching for 7 years at Stivers High School for the Arts.
Spandau Ballet and Saving Balleria are in the editing process. By day he is building Arbonne, a health and wellness business.