Monday, March 23, 2015

Jake Kerr, Tommy black and the Staff of Light

AUTHOR:                   Jake Kerr
BOOK TITLE:            Tommy Black and the Staff of Light
GENRE:                      Middle Grade fantasy action/adventure
PUBLISHER:              Self-published (Currents & Tangents Press)
BUY LINK:       

Please tell us about yourself.

I went to college with Laura Hillenbrand, who once hit me in the head with a lacrosse ball. I left college and taught at Phillips Andover Academy, where I got to introduce young men and women to the work of Philip K. Dick. I then worked for a radio station, where Lou Reed thanked me for organizing a record release party with the gift of an Andy Warhol Factory print. I then worked for a record company where I got to ride with Henry Rollins on his tour bus between Denver and Albuquerque. Then I was a music journalist, during which Creed lead singer Scott Stapp once punched me. I then started writing fiction, got nominated for a Nebula Award, and was hugged by Neil Gaiman at the Nebula ceremony.

Are you a full-time writer or part-time, and how do you organize your writing time?

I mostly write part-time at night, usually on my Macbook while sitting in my bed with my wife watching TV beside me. But I tend to write wherever I can. So I’ll sneak some time in at Starbucks while escorting one of my daughters around town or while traveling on business in the plane or hotel rooms. My computer is truly my office.

When and why did you begin writing?

Ever since I read The Hobbit when I was nine years old I wanted to be a writer. Well, a reader really, but that quickly evolved into wanting to be a writer. However, I didn’t start to truly write fiction until I was in my forties. Before then I would start a piece, see how awful it was, and then give up. It wasn’t until I had written close to a million words of journalism that I tried fiction again, and after countless writing exercises and critique sessions at the Writer’s Garret in Dallas, I was finally happy with the results.

What do you do when you’re not writing/editing or thinking about writing/editing?

I like relaxing with my family. That can include everything from just watching TV with my wife to watching my daughter ride her horse to cooking with my youngest. Beyond that I am focused on self-publishing. So publishing and marketing have filled the time when I’m not writing or revising. Examining and testing book marketing and how difficult it is to move the sales needle is a humbling but very enriching experience.

What was the toughest criticism given to you? What was the biggest compliment?

The toughest criticism I ever received was when my mother, with the best of intentions, recommended I apply for a job as a shoe salesman. It was based purely on a practical reality—I was dirt poor and my mom had found a job opening—but the implication of failure was very difficult for me to grasp. My mom was telling me to spend less time pursuing my dream and more time working. It was a perfectly legitimate criticism of my life choices, but I did not listen to her criticism, whether that was due to wisdom or luck is unknown. And there is a lesson in that: Sometimes the best criticism is the criticism you ignore because it focuses you not on short-term solutions but what you are really trying to achieve.

The biggest compliment I ever received was from a grizzled old radio music director in El Paso, Texas. I worked at a record company, and he was a client of mine. I flew in to see if I could convince him to play one of my records.

I was at his house, and we were playing chess and drinking beers, and he was regaling me with tales of Juarez and its nightlife. I hadn’t spent a lot of time with him, but the time we spent together was always fun and positive. More than anything we were more like old buddies than business colleagues.

We’re about halfway through our game of chess, and he looks at me and goes. “Did you know I’m a Vietnam veteran?” I replied that I didn’t. He kind of said it out of the blue, and I was surprised because it didn’t seem to have any context. He then added, “Well, I am. So know that there are very very few people I would say this to.” He then leaned close enough that I could smell the nicotine on his breath, and said, “I would go to war with you. You’re the kind of guy that you want in a foxhole or guarding your back.”

That was the biggest compliment I’ve ever received.

Did those change how or what you did in your next novel?

All experiences change you, and while I was perhaps coy with my answers above by not directing them to my writing, the truth is that they shaped me and my work. The criticism reinforced in me that all I needed to count on to get ahead was myself. For a writer, this is powerful stuff because you are constantly being judged. The compliment gave me a confidence that I could relate to others, another powerful thing for writers to know about themselves. After all, if you can relate to others to the level of them going to war with you, you can be confident that they’ll identify with your words and that they are in good hands when entrusting you with their imagination and dreams.

Did you learn anything from writing your book, and what was it?

In terms of the craft of writing I learned one of the most important lessons of my writing career: I do not know how to end a book if I just write it on the spur of the moment. When I started Tommy Black I did what many writers do: I took an idea in my head and just followed where it took me.

Before I knew it I had 80,000 words but was nowhere near an ending. In fact, I didn’t even know how the book would end. It was at that point that I made a conscious decision to stop writing via discovery and look at the book holistically and figure out how it would end, even if it was a clinical decision and not a creative one.

Of course any time you are inventing something it is creative, so even when creating the structure of a novel you are creating, and that was the lesson: Plotting a novel out in advance does not destroy the magic of creation.

I plotted the book from the beginning, writing all the key markers down in an outline. When I was done I realized that the beginning was mostly fine, but I needed to cut 40K words from the end and then rewrite that from scratch. That was painful but necessary. I have already plotted out book 2 and 3, although that outline morphs and changes as I think of new ideas to add, but make no mistake: The core path is there and the odds of cutting 40K words again is unlikely.

What are your current projects?

I’m currently revising book two of the Tommy Black series and putting the finishing touches on the outline of book three. I am also preparing to publish a special edition of my award-nominated story, “The Old Equations.” As it was written as an homage to the legendary fifties era science fiction story, “The Cold Equations,” I am going to publish them both in a single volume with some additional material.

What do you plan for the future?

I am tentatively planning on adding a book four to the Tommy Black series, and I have two long-delayed projects I want to get to: A young adult fantasy series and a literary novel with light science fiction elements based on the world I created in my story “The Past Within.” Beyond that, who knows? I need to write faster, though.

How can we find you? Website, Facebook, Twitter, blog, etc.?

Tell us about the current book you’re promoting.

Tommy Black and the Staff of Light is the first in what will most likely be a four volume series. It is set in 1938 and tells the tale of a young boy named Tommy Black that is thrust into a magical adventure using his grandfather’s magical staff. The thing is—magic is dying in the world and considered a sideshow curiosity, so to Tommy the idea of magical creatures and a magical artifact is almost as fantastic as we would consider it. The novel deals with how Tommy tries to rescue his grandfather with a magical artifact that he barely knows how to control and which comes with a troubling history.

Oh, and there is a young girl named Naomi who is confident and powerful in magic. She wants nothing more than to push Tommy aside to get things done, and their dynamic is one of my favorite parts of the book.

What genre do you write in and why?

I am primarily known for my science fiction short stories, which is amusing to me because my first few novels will be middle grade historical urban fantasy. I’ve published literary stories and am planning on a literary novel for release at the end of the year. But the truth is that I’ll never stray far from my fantasy and science fiction roots.

What is your experience working or being around children or teens?

I originally wanted to be a teacher, and I spent a semester student teaching seventh graders. I also spent a summer teaching talented high school students at Phillips Andover Academy. And, of course, I have three daughters who are aged 10, 13, and 18. So dealing with children is my full-time job!

Why do you feel qualified to write a children’s or teen novel?

I love all kinds of books in all kinds of genres. Three of my favorite books are Tom Jones, Wuthering Heights, and The Great Gatsby. My college thesis was on Shakespeare’s first and last plays. I love thrillers, mysteries, and literary novels. My love of literature is deep and broad.

Yet the books that will always resonate the most in my heart, the ones that fill me with the greatest sense of wonder and joy, are the action adventure novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the novels Ursula Le Guin wrote for girls and boys, the epic fantasies that would keep me up late at night as I traveled through space, time, and reality and truly lived in the world of the Shire or Pern.

So, I am qualified to write children’s literature because I never stopped being a child. Of course, I matured and aged, and my tastes became more refined--I am still awed by the stark beauty of Blood Meridian, for example--but that doesn’t mean that I can’t pick up The Land That Time Forgot and lose myself among the dinosaurs. 

And you know what? I actually didn’t write Tommy Black for children. I wrote it for me. It’s the kid’s book I loved when I was a child and the kind of book I wanted to write for myself in my forties. That children truly love it was my hope, of course, and the fact that they do pleases me to no end.

What influences your writing?

Nothing influenced my writing more than Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel The Land That Time Forgot. The novel opens with the narrator finding a manuscript rolled up in a glass bottle. He starts reading, wondering where in the world and from what ocean it came from. At one point he speaks directly to the reader, preparing them for the fantastic story to come, and says something like, “In a few pages you will forget that I exist.”

Burroughs was such a master storyteller that he was explicitly telling the reader, “I’ve set the story up, and now I will tell it with such skill that you will be totally immersed in it and forget that anything else exists.” And he does it! He is so good that you are immediately lost in the world he created.

As a writer, it takes a special kind of confidence to know that your words will carry the reader away to another place, but it takes a transcendent story teller like Burroughs to warn us its going to happen and then do it anyway.

I wanted to write like that. I want to write like that—to make the reader entirely lose their sense of place and time as they enter the world I created.

What do you hope your readers will take away from this book?

What a great question. While I first and foremost wanted to write a fun action adventure story for young readers, I also wanted to delve into some important moral questions without being overt about it. So I really want to have my young readers come away from the book with some important questions that they can share with their parents or teachers.

For example, the artifact that Tommy inherits has a dark and horrible origin. How do you deal with something when you find out it has a history that you find morally questionable? Also, there really is no villain in the book. There are unlikable characters, but the motivations of everyone can be conceivably explained as being due to trying to do good. What is it like when multiple people all have conflicting agendas, and they all have a reasonable claim to being “right?”

The depth I purposely added to the novel is why the edition that came out in 2015 includes an educational supplement, part of which is a study guide for the difficult questions raised by the book.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

Read, watch NBA basketball and Hell’s Kitchen, spend time with my family, walk my dogs. I also spend an extraordinary amount of time on the publishing side of my career—learning, designing books, marketing, and all the pieces beyond just the writing.

What books have most influenced your life?

Two very closely linked books: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and The Great Gatsby. Both books outline a powerful personality who had a goal and created a plan to achieve it. Despite all the challenges and difficulties, both men achieved their goals.

What is interesting to me is that the fiction book is the one that does a better job at presenting the complexity, the price you may need to pay, and even the tragedy of achieving your dreams. But the yearning for that dream is tangible in both books. I’ve felt it my whole life, and it is that yearning that keeps me going, even to this day. 


For fourteen-year-old Tommy Black, nothing is worse than being raised by an overprotective grandfather in the city that never sleeps. That is until his grandfather is captured by magical creatures and Tommy has to save him with his family's magical staff.

That wouldn't be so bad, but the only magic he can do with the staff is weak--making light. What the heck can you do with light?

Tommy finds out as he fights golems, shadow creatures, and djinn in a journey that features a magical river, an enchanted train, and an illusionary fortress. But the worst part of all? Tommy has to save his grandfather with the help of Naomi, a girl whose talent with magic is only rivaled by her ability to hurl insults.

From Nebula, Sturgeon, and Million Writers Award nominee Jake Kerr comes the Tommy Black trilogy, an action adventure series for readers of all ages.

1 comment:

  1. It's certainly true that experience changes you!

    Nice excerpt!