John M Donovan
Coming in 2023: The Smalltown Way, Kerouac’s Ghost, and More
Another in a series of conversations with John M Donovan.
Q. Thanks for consenting to this interview.
A. My pleasure, more or less.
Q. We couldn’t help noticing that you didn’t release any novels in 2022. What’s up with that?
A. Well, it takes time to write a novel. You can’t just crank them out willy-nilly and expect them to be any good. I mean, you can be willy or nilly but not both.
Q. So what did you accomplish this past year?
A. Just this past week I finished a draft of The Smalltown Way, which now goes into editing and fixing mode.
Q. Tell us what that’s about.
A. The Smalltown Way covers 13 years in Colby City, Illinois, from shortly after the US invaded Iraq to the day after Election Day in 2016.
Q. Hey, 2016, that was when that one guy got elected.
A. Yeah, that’s pretty crucial to the story. The two most important characters in this novel are Chuck Kelso, owner of the lumber yard in Colby City, and an electrician named Jerry Allison. Both of these characters appeared in The Rocheville Devil; Chuck was the guy who was suspicious of Tom Skolka and Jerry was in one of Tom’s sixth-grade visions saying “What’s one more dead hippie?”
Q. Is it safe to assume these two are rooting for different candidates in the 2016 election?
A. It is. Chuck sometimes feels like he’s the only liberal in town, and towards the end of the novel Jerry has himself a red hat. Some of the other main characters are Chuck’s son C.D., who works for an alternative newspaper; Rev. Ed Schoeling, pastor at Colby City Christian; Herbert Joyner, who also appeared in The Rocheville Devil and who is considered by his co-workers to have a screw loose; Robinson Reed, a theater major who becomes a teacher at Colby Central
and writes a controversial book about a new approach to Christianity; and Mads McRight, who hosts a right-wing radio show out of Spalding and is one of the nastiest characters I’ve ever created.
Q. Why is the novel called The Smalltown Way?
A. Well, one of the working titles was Midwestern Landscapes. Another was The Midwestern Landscapes of Hieronymous Bosch—which I still kind of like. But I landed on The Smalltown Way because we see how Colby City changes over the years, how it evolves in some ways and devolves in others. It’s this little town of 600 people and sometimes they come together and sometimes they take sides against each other.
Q. How’s the tone of the book?
A. It’s not as dark as The Rocheville Devil but it’s not as freewheeling as Trombone Answers. It’s a character-driven story grounded in reality—and because of that there are of course some hilarious moments. The final chapter is equal parts tragedy, absurdity, and dry humor.
Q. When can we expect to see The Smalltown Way?
A. I’m shooting for early 2023. And if things go well I’d like to release Kerouac’s Ghost and a collection of short stories at the same time.
Q. Won’t that have a negative impact on sales?
A. Considering I’ve only sold about 200 books in ten years, I’m not that worried about it. My hope is that new readers will find something to like and then go about exploring my back catalog. You can write that I was on my knees begging when I said that. In the words of Arlo Guthrie, I ain’t proud.