There was no question in my mind about who I wanted for my first interview on this blog: John Darryl Winston, parent, educator and independent author of IA:Initiate and IA: B.O.S.S. – and a genuinely lovely man, whom I greatly admire. Despite teaching, fundraising for a literacy program that aims to instil a love of reading and writing in schoolchildren, and working on his next three books, John still found the time to talk to me. This is what we said.
What drives you to write?
I wish I could say it was just the desire to write, but probably something more superficial, more human: to do something worthwhile that makes a mark and difference somehow in the lives of many people.
You have so far published two books, IA: Initiate and IA: B.O.S.S. (read my review), which are part one and two of the IA Series trilogy. What is the series about, and why did you choose to tell this particular story?
At its core, the IA series is about father and son, brother and sister, boy and girl who believe there’s more to life than what can be seen. I wanted to tell a story about family and friends that were touched by success and failure equally, about the struggles of life and death that are rarely told in today’s literature. I chose to write this story because I wanted to combine what I knew about science that I believed to be true with what I believed about the supernatural world to be possible and create a subtle science fiction, a science fiction that one day soon would be considered truth.
What is it that drew you to YA fiction rather than another genre? Do you see yourself writing in another genre in the future, once the IA Series is completed?
Oh my goodness, Daphne, I have all these ideas and they’re definitely not limited to YA fiction. I was drawn to YA fiction because I happened to be teaching middle school students reading and wanted to write something I thought would spark their imaginations. So it was a natural progression. After the IA series is complete, I imagine staying with this genre for a while longer, throwing a memoir in there and then all bets are off.
You recently completed an MFA in Creative Writing, but I’m willing to bet you were a writer long before you started that course. What would you say is the most valuable thing that can be gained from a formal education in Creative Writing? Do you think writing can be taught?
You would be right in saying I was a writer long before the MFA. The most valuable thing I gained from my formal education at Wilkes University in particular would have to be the writing community I’ve become a part of there. My mentor, Jeff Talarigo, author of “The Ginseng Hunter” and “The Pearl Diver” has become a good friend. I’ve become a part of a group of talented published writers for life and that feels good. I’ve also become more technically sound as a writer in the way of craft, and I think that’s important. Everybody wants to write a book, and that’s good. I figured I should be at least skilled at the craft. I’m a firm believer in learning most of the rules before I start breaking them.
I do think writing, like music, in a technical sense can be taught and that anybody that studies hard and reads a lot can learn to become a good writer. But I think the great ones in any field have a gift that can’t be taught. I believe when you put talent with study and hard work, plus a little bit of luck, you get greatness.
Identity is becoming increasingly complex these days, and many of us, more than ever before, are juggling several “personas”. You describe yourself as a parent, an educator and an author. Is there one of these “titles” that you identify more strongly with? How do they all feed into one another?
This is an excellent question, Daphne, one I’m wrestling with constantly and at this very moment as my daughter, Marquette, sits 20 feet away from me playing her guitar and asking for help. I definitely identify most with being a parent. It’s easy for me, my default position, and comes natural. I’m more interested in Marquette’s sports activities then watching the Super Bowl (don’t tell anybody that). That being said, the three hats: parent, educator, and author all work well together, because I treat my students like my daughter and my daughter like my students, and I write for them, with all of them in mind, if that makes sense.
I know for a fact that – like most of us independent authors – you are also acting as your own PR and marketing team. How are you finding that process? Were you prepared for it when you began your journey as an author? What would you tell other independent authors who find this side of things intimidating and/or undignified?
I find the promotion and marketing part of being an independent author a wild, confusing ride, and I’m never quite sure I’m doing the right thing or if what I’m doing is having the desired effect. You picked two perfect words that describe what I feel in a nutshell: intimidating and undignified. It’s intimidating because I’m the poster child for introverts and asking someone to buy my book sits right up there with asking a girl out when I was growing up. It just wasn’t gonna happen. So I hide behind social media and that’s where the undignified part comes in. I feel like when I post an ad about my book, I’m bothering people and when I repeatedly post, the feeling multiplies exponentially.
That being said, I’ve decided to do it anyway. I see more outlandish things on social media including ads about countless products that people may or may not be interested in, and when people see them, like me, they probably just scroll on by. The ones who may get irritated by seeing my book on social media probably know me and are haters, so I don’t care about them. They need to unfriend or unfollow me. I’m confident I’ve put a quality, respectable product out there, and I’m going with that indefinitely. I can’t give up. That’s how much I believe in what I’m doing. Was that a rant?
You have quite a strong social media presence. What would you say is the secret to having genuine interactions on what is, by nature, quite a fickle and superficial medium? And do “followers” ever translate into readers?
Thank you, Daphne! I think you hit the nail right on the head when you said “genuine interactions.” I’ve met some the nicest people on social media, most I’ve never met in person or even heard their voices, but I’ve read their books, posts, blogs, and even conversed with some on Skype or some other instant messaging app. I for one don’t believe in automated messaging people and I usually ignore them. A lot of my followers translate into readers. I had a Twitter friend yesterday from nowhere tweet that she had just purchased my book. A few hours later she informed me she was several chapters in and was loving it, which of course made my night, and this is not a rare occurrence. So I try to actually interact with my friends on social media which ain’t easy as there’s only 24 hours in a day.
You are currently running a crowdfunding campaign on kickstarter in support of your Adopt an Author initiative, which aims to encourage a love of reading and writing in schoolchildren. Can you tell us a bit more about the program and your campaign? Why should people support it?
As I said before, I started writing these stories for my reading students. They loved them. A teacher at another school in Detroit who found out what I was doing and wanted me to come to her school and talk to her students about reading and writing. Four weeks before I came, all of her student read my book, and she put them on a wikispace so they could ask me about the book and anything else while they were reading. The questions and comments I got were amazing, and it was a lot of fun. When I went to the school, I read to the students from my new book and they were enthralled. I gave away prices, signed books, and answered questions. The whole thing was surreal. I thought it was something I could do in every classroom, as many as I could, and recruit other authors to do the same, and the Adopt an Author Program was born.
People should support the program because there are not many skills as important for a child to acquire than literacy, and the program’s goal is not just to teach reading and writing but create an atmosphere where kids learn to love reading and writing. I was once an unmotivated reader and am in a unique position to know the path from indifference to appreciation of the written word.
Education is under attack, not just in my hometown of Detroit but around the world. I’ve dedicated the whole of my adult life to teaching kids how to be not just productive adults but adults that excel. Whether it’s been academics, athletics, or the arts I’ve been there and continue to be on the front line. From coaching multiple sports to teaching vocals and musical instruments, I’ve committed myself in a big way. Now armed with an MA (soon to be MFA) in creative writing, 17 years experience as a public school educator, and the distinction: published author, I stand ready to take that commitment and the kids I teach to the next level.
What can we expect from you next?
I’m working on three projects: The first is “IA: Union,” the final book in the IA trilogy which has me frustrated right now. The second is a sci-fi YA called “Ultima Humana,” about the last human a long time from now on a planet not too far away, lol. The third is a sci-fi thriller called “Patriarch” about a scientist who has found a way to endow his son with supernatural powers in a natural way. Sound familiar?
As far as “doing something worthwhile” goes, John has already come a long way, and he’s just getting started. Keep an eye on this man: there are many more great things ahead. I am sure of it.
Support his kickstarter campaign.