by Sue Ann Rybak
Chestnut Hill novelist Justin Kramon will read from his critically acclaimed literary novel “Finny” followed by a question and answer session at 7 p.m. Friday, July 20, in Grey Towers Castle on the campus of Arcadia University, 450 S. Easton Rd. in Glenside.
In an interview with the Chestnut Hill Local, Kramon revealed that he had never even considered a writing career in high school. As a teenager, he hoped to pursue a career in music.
“I used to play jazz piano,” he said. “I wasn’t good enough to do it professionally. That’s one thing that gets in the way [of a career] when you’re not good enough to do it,” he said, laughing.
Kramon said he had “always been interested in doing some kind of artistic endeavor or artistic expression.”
He never considered a career as a writer until he took a fiction writing class on a whim one summer at Harvard Extension School.
“I had this weird job, working as a supervisor at night at a homeless shelter,” Kramon said. “I was in a constant state of spacyness.”Kelly Saccomanno <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Because he worked nights, Kramon said he was looking for a way to fill his days.
His teacher, Maxine Rodburg, who was also a writer, encouraged him to pursue a career in writing. With that the seed was planted. She encouraged him to apply to a MFA program in writing.
“Writing always seemed like a weird hobby – like learning to build your own canoe,” Kramon said. “I didn’t see it as a career.”
After being accepted into Iowa University’s Writers Workshop program, Kramon said all that changed. He said it made him realize the “kind of commitment” that was necessary to pursue writing as a career.
CH Local: So, what advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Kramon: “Writing is a hard thing to give advice about,” he said, “since it’s very individual, and so I don’t think anyone – especially me – is really an authority. But I’d say that one thing that was helpful for me was to figure out the books and the writers I truly love. It was easy for me to pretend to be enthusiastic about a lot of different books, but my stories didn’t start to work until I was really honest with myself about which writers moved and excited me. They haven’t always been the most fashionable or the coolest names to drop at parties, but they gave me a goal to work towards.
CH Local: Who are some of your favorite authors?
Kramon: I love a lot of different types of books. I enjoy 19th-century writers: Dickens, Austen. I love Edith Wharton. Others I love include: Alice Munro, Richard Ford, Naguib Mahfouz, Stephen King, James Baldwin, Alice Adams, Haruki Murakami, Chimamanda Adichie. I also love thrillers and crime novels: Henning Mankell, Ruth Rendell, Patricia Highsmith. And lots of other authors – it would take to long to name.
CH Local: Where did the idea for your book “Finny” come from?
Kramon: The real idea came from old 19th century novels that I really liked – Dickens, Jane Austen, Bronte and Thomas Hardy. There is a certain kind of bold adventure that you kind of associate with a young man growing up and coming into the world. So, I was interested in writing that story from a young woman’s point of view.
CH Local: Who is your favorite character in the book?
Kramon: Finny. When the story begins, Finny is 14, and it ends when she is 35. It’s kind of a long timespan for a novel. When it starts out she is a very strong-willed, funny, young woman with a sort of plucky sense of humor. Her dad is very fond of quoting great men, as he calls them, at the dinner table. For example, he has this one line at the dinner table where he says “Good artists borrow, great artists steal – Picasso.”
Finny takes offense to this because he is always quoting men and never women. One time she sort of mocks him a bit and her dad says “Finny don’t mock me.” To which she replies “I don’t mock, I steal – Aristotle.”
She is very plucky and sticks up for herself. But, she doesn’t fit in. Her mom is more of a 50s housewife, who is more concerned about what is proper. Finny doesn’t know where her place is in all this until she meets Earl Henckel, who lives with his father, a piano teacher who suffers from Narcolepsy, in this strange little house. It’s sort of a coming of age romance and comedy novel.
CH Local: Are any of the characters based on someone you know?
Kramon: I think it’s a complicated question because all any fiction writer has to draw from is their own experience on some level. I feel at some point you get limited by your experiences. You have your mind and your experiences basically. And there is some interaction between those two things. For me, it’s more about how do I get out of my own experiences? I think part of the reason you write fiction is to get outside of yourself a bit.
CH Local: What is a typical day like?
Kramon: My routine is pretty boring. I get up, have my cereal and get to work. I tend to work on new projects in the morning. There are different stages in the process for me. So if I am writing a story, I might to be working on an outline, writing or editing. Reading is also an important part of the process for me. It’s sort of weird to clock hours to read. But, I get ideas from other authors.
CH Local: Why did you move to Chestnut Hill?
Kramon: I enjoy Chestnut Hill because it’s an attractive town and close to Center City. It’s a nice town to walk around in. I also love the quiet and the access to the beautiful section of Fairmount Park that runs by the Wissahickon.
CH Local: Is anyone in your family a writer?
Kramon: My Dad has done some technical writing. In terms of wanting to do creative writing, the bigger influence came from my teachers. I think the part of writing that I liked was that it was really different from ways I had seen people express themselves. It opened up this whole new way of expressing myself.
CH Local: Some writers have told me it’s hard to have their work edited or critiqued. Does it bother you to have things cut out of the novel?
Kramon: I want it to be as streamlined as possible. Cutting out something or changing things are all part of the process. It can be challenging, but a lot of that is because you have spent a lot of time alone in a room with this book. I think adding other people’s ideas or hearing other people’s thoughts about it help, if it’s a good conversation. My experience has been pretty good. I have gotten a lot helpful hints from editors at Random House. It was good because it was a conversation.
CH Local: Do you ever think about quitting?
Kramon: I definitely think about giving up writing all the time. It’s constantly hard for me. I guess it takes commitment. And a lack of better options – just kidding. It would be disingenuous of me to say that it gets easier because I’m not sure it really does – or should – even though there are things I’ve learned. Maybe you figure out a few of the mechanical things over time. And maybe you get a little more faith in yourself at some point. I am still waiting for that one. It’s just a very long and sometimes discouraging process, but it’s also the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done in terms of work.