John Carenen is an author and a professor of English. He holds an M.F.A. in Fiction Writing from the prestigious University of Iowa Writers Workshop. Signs of Struggle, his first Thomas O’Shea mystery novel, was published in 2012. In the sequel, A Far Gone Night, a late night stroll by the river propels O’Shea into the middle of a baffling murder. Here John talks about how Signs of Struggle took shape and then evolved into a series.
I did not plan to write a series. I figured my debut novel, Signs of Struggle, for a stand-alone story about a man and how he dealt with tremendous adversity and his own personal demons springing forth from that adversity. I thought it would make a good story, I would write it, and then I would hope it would be publishable.
The genesis from the story came from an approach Steven King uses. That is, the “What if?” question to propel a story forward. What if the protagonist wakes up in his small Montana town and everyone else has vanished, or is dead. Except him. What happens next? Why did it happen? How will this craziness turn out?
Adopting that approach, in part, I once asked myself a few years ago, what would be the worst thing that could possibly happen to me? Well, at the time I had a wonderful family – wife and two teenage daughters. The worst thing that could happen to me, it seemed, would be to lose them all somehow – car crash, airplane crash, Ebola virus – you name it.
Okay, once I got to thinking about that, as abhorrent as the thought was, what would I do about it? We were living in the South then, and still are, and I decided I would sell everything and head back to my home state – Iowa – and try to heal by withdrawing and very, very gradually try to create some kind of a productive life, if that were possible. Get away from so much that would remind me of what I had lost. Take a few pictures and our Bulldog and go back north.
So, that’s what I did; or rather, that’s what my protagonist did. His name is Thomas O’Shea. He sold his half of a successful business, sold his house, his beach house, his cars, and cashed in everything. He gave away his furniture and all the clothes that belonged to his family. He bought an enormous pickup truck and headed home with just a few things and Gotcha, his Bulldog.
He tries to avoid people, but one day he stumbles onto what looks like a farm accident, but he has questions, and the more questions he asks (he has nothing but time on his hands), the more people try to discourage him. Unpleasant people. Killers. What happens next is in the novel.
Thankfully, the folks at Neverland Publishing decided to publish Signs of Struggle. But then some of my readers, and the people at NP, decided that they wanted to know more about Thomas – his history; his relationship with the comely high school English teacher, Olivia Olson; and where did he learn to be such a tough guy?
A Far Gone Night, the sequel, was born. Thomas O’Shea, suffering from insomnia, goes for a late-night stroll through the peaceful streets of his adopted town, Rockbluff, Iowa, and finds himself pausing downtown on the bridge that spans the Whitetail River, which flows through the village. When he glances downstream, he sees a dead girl’s naked body, rushes down and pulls her from the water, and discovers two bullet holes in the back of her head. When the law shows up, Thomas does not divulge what he discovered because he is distrustful of all governmental agencies. Then, when the coroner declares the girl’s death a suicide, he begins to ask questions again. And people try to discourage him from asking those questions.
This time he’s in deep against powerful forces, but that does not deter him from enlisting help from a couple of friends – Lunatic Mooning, Ojibwa owner of the Grain o’ Truth Bar & Grill; and Clancy Dominguez, an old buddy from Navy SEAL training days. Mix in the rest of the quirky characters populating Rockbluff, and the reader will find themselves in what I hope to be an enjoyable read – with a few surprises.
Thomas O’Shea has begun to take over my creative juices, and so now I am working on the third novel in the series – The Face on the Other Side. There’s just something about this character that won’t let me go. I hope you, as readers, have the same response.
John and his wife live in a cozy cottage down a quiet lane in northern Greenville, South Carolina. He is a big fan of the Iowa Hawkeyes and Boston Red Sox.