30 Jan 2014

John Paul Godges: Oh, Beautiful: An American Family in the 20th Century

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“Oh, Beautiful: An American Family in the 20th Century” by John Paul Godges was recommended to me by a friend and I am so glad she did. 
The book has a lot to give but for me one of the main attractions is the huge arsenal of historical detail. Godges describes the roots of his family in Italy and Poland, the reasons why members of the respective families decided to try their fortune in the US, how they and their kins lived and how they got the money for the journey. Godges’ ancestors arrive in the US as immigrants, try to establish themselves in the cross fire of hopes, expectations and often harsh reality. With minute detail and precision he gives accounts of their experiences from the Great War up to modern times, focusing on individual family members. These characters are a great cross section of Americans and humans and serve brilliantly to reflect on the historic and personal events and issues that hit his family, be that strong religious affiliation and convictions, attitude to Vietnam or to homosexuality, which affects more than one person in the family.
This variety of people from his family – who go their own way and reunite at a family gathering – enables us to see a huge chunk of American history and socio-cultural aspects of modern times through a patchwork of real lives.
Well written and with wonderful reflections this is a very enjoyable and rewarding read

Interview with John:

Tell us a little about yourself as a writer and a person.
What made you become a writer? Have you always written?

I wanted to be a journalist since childhood, because being a journalist seemed like the practical way to be a writer back then. How things change! Seriously, whenever I’ve faced a vocational crossroads in life, I’ve remembered this insight from my college days: The things that have always given me the greatest sense of accomplishment in life are things I’ve written and edited, either as a journalist or otherwise. So being a writer is, for me, a matter of being true to myself.

When did you decide to write this book? 4180918

At my parents’ 50th Wedding Anniversary. They are opposites in some respects, and they produced six extremely different children. The more I reflected on my parents’ lives, on their parents’ lives, and on our lives as the children and grandchildren, the more it dawned on me that our family story of immigration and assimilation, of going our separate ways and yet somehow coming back together, reflected the national story and the continuous American experience of struggling to juggle our individualism with our communitarianism. The more I saw the parallels between the familial and the national, the more I wanted to tell this story.

How difficult was it to write about real characters?

That was easy. It was journalism. It would be difficult for me to write about unreal characters.

Tell us a little about the history of the book. How long did it take you to write and publish?

It took me ten years to write and publish Oh, Beautiful. Because I work full time, that’s ten years of weekends, nights, and vacations. Writing the book required a lot more research, interviewing, travel, and investment than I had anticipated, but it always felt like progress was being made, because the outline at the beginning served as a good guide and pretty much survived intact as the outline at the end.

What was the easiest about writing the book and what was the hardest?

The easiest thing was that my family was all on board, and they all agreed to undergo the lengthy interviews as our schedules permitted. The hardest thing was that the interviews and other shared stories brought back a lot of painful memories for everyone. Working together on this book became a grand exercise in group therapy, which can be very painful. One thing the book itself underscores is that the greatest wisdom comes from the greatest pain.

Would you say there is a message in the book beyond the story? Do you find it is well received and picked up by the reviewers?

Absolutely. The core message is this: To be an American in the fullest sense of the word means to discover oneself as an individual within a community—and to sustain that tension, to the detriment of neither the individual nor the community. How that plays out in our individual lives as Americans is a source of endless fascination, conflict, resolution, and amusement. It’s a great big tug-of-war. It’s messy. But it’s who we are. I was really glad that the Kirkus reviewer completely picked up on this abstract concept and saw how the characters embodied it.

What do you like most about your characters? Which one is your favourite?

Forgiveness is the characteristic I like most. Without the ability to forgive one another and to look beyond our personal agendas, there can be no family, and there can be no society. The characters stick to their guns, but they learn to respect each other’s competing guns and to forgive one another for the wounds they inevitably inflict. My favorite character of all is my mentally ill sister. She is the heart and soul of the family, because she taught us how to love one another.

Who would play the characters in a film?

Valerie Harper would play my mom, the emotionally effusive Italian. Christopher Plummer would play my dad, the morally rigorous Marine. These two characters display numerous irreconcilable differences, yet they stay together regardless. Sally Field would play my mentally ill sister, whose character is a cross between “The Flying Nun” and “Sybil.”

Who did your cover work? Were you involved in the process?

A longtime friend and colleague helped me. We worked side-by-side.

What are your next projects? Tell us about your other books.

They haven’t taken from yet. I tell people I’m “between passions.”

What is your life like? What do you do for pleasure and work when you are not writing?

I write and edit for a living. I’m editor-in-chief of RAND Review, the flagship magazine of the RAND Corporation. For fun, I play beach volleyball and go on long hikes with friends.

Who are your literary influences? What are your favourite books/ films/ albums?

Steinbeck is my role model. In just about everything he wrote, he revealed his love for people, animals, and the land. My favorite books of his are Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden. I genuinely miss his characters: the Joads, the Hamiltons, and the Trasks. They had their faults, but Steinbeck showed us how to love them through his words. I cannot imagine a nobler task for a writer.

What are your views on independent publishing?

I am indebted to independent publishing for having made it possible for me to become an independent publisher, but I do hold some darkly humorous views. When I attended a self-publishing conference in New York City about five years ago, I grew skeptical of the conventional wisdom of finding your niche, your tribe, your target audience, and sticking with it. “The way things are going,” I quipped during one seminar, “we’ll all end up writing for audiences of five!” I’m afraid my snarky prediction might be coming true. I wonder if Steinbeck could’ve succeeded today, because he wrote for a mass audience. Here’s another dark view of mine: The best way to succeed in publishing today, independent or not, is to write a three-way romance between a dragon, a vampire, and a zombie! Don’t get me wrong. There are wonderful people in the world of independent publishing, and they have helped me tremendously. But I don’t think independent or traditional publishing today does a great job of helping readers find really good writing. 
I wonder if Steinbeck could’ve succeeded today, because he wrote for a mass audience, and the only “platform” he had was a second-story bedroom in his father’s house.

Can you recomm end any indie books/ authors?

The one indie book and author I have often recommended is The Indie Author Guide by April L. Hamilton. April’s seminar was the best one at the conference I attended in New York, and her book was particularly helpful to me.

 

Connect with John here:

Website:
http://www.johnpaulgodges.com/

Amazon:
http://www.amazon.com/Oh-Beautiful-Am…

iTunes:
https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/oh-b…

Barnes & Noble:
http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/oh-be…

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Christoph Fischer was born in Germany in 1970 as the son of a Sudeten-German father and a Bavarian mother. ‘The Luck of The Weissensteiners’ is his first published work. He has written several other novels which are in the later stages of editing and finalisation.
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