|J.J. Hensley, author of RESOLVE|
Since moving to Pittsburgh two years ago, one of the things I’ve been pleasantly surprised at is just how literary this city is. So … I started a feature on this blog to celebrate that. It’s called READIN’AT, and one of its goals is to celebrate all things bookish as relating to the ‘Burgh. I especially want to highlight Pittsburgh area authors in hopes of giving their work a little more exposure. Make them household names in their own hometowns, so to speak. Every bit helps, y’know?
Today, I’m hosting Pittsburgh author J.J. Hensley. We belong to the same church, and after I mentioned my latest book review being published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, J.J. reached out to me and we began an email exchange. That led to a conversation about the timing of one’s novel when it coincides with events in the news.
You see, J.J.’s latest novel is RESOLVE, a thriller set at the Pittsburgh Marathon. I asked him about that (like probably everyone else has since the tragedy in Boston). His response in this guest post is absolutely well-worth the read. ~ Melissa
Timing is Everything – But, So is the Message
by J.J. Hensley, author of RESOLVE
It had to be one of the worst-timed mailings ever. It was about 10 in the morning and I had just come back from a Post Office north of Pittsburgh. I had mailed an unsolicited, complimentary copy of my recently-published book to the Editor-in-Chief of Runner’s World magazine. The hard cover version of my novel, Resolve, had just been released and many buyers had emailed me, telling me the book had just been delivered on their doorstep from Amazon or another retailer. I had a few extra copies, so I figured, why not? Maybe the main guy at Runner’s World will read the thing, like it, and mention it in the magazine. The book involves running, so it was a no-lose situation for me, right?
That was 10:00 AM on April, 15 2013. At 2:49 PM the first explosion occurred near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. It was followed by a second explosion, and for the next several days and weeks the nation’s attention was focused on the hunt for both suspects and explanations. And somewhere in the halls of the Runner’s World headquarters sat a book I had mailed just hours prior to the bombing. Normally, this would not be of any consequence, except the book is a murder mystery told as the main character runs the Pittsburgh Marathon.
Obviously, my first thoughts were the same as most who stared at their televisions sets, watching the events unfold. First, most of us felt shock. Then, horror. Then, probably a good amount of rage. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that nobody looks at the postmark of a package. It could have appeared that I mailed the book after the bombing and that I was trying to profit off of an unimaginable tragedy. Days later, I attempted to send an email of explanation to a general contact email address, but I would not be surprised if it is still out there in cyberspace and was never read. Somewhere, somebody at the magazine probably thinks I’m a major jackass.
Over the next few weeks, I had several people comment on the unfortunate luck of having the release of my first novel coincide with the Boston tragedy, especially given the premise of the book. I did my best to keep things in perspective and to remember how little being published means in comparison to those who were directly affected by what occurred in Boston. That was easy to do. I’d been a police officer and seen examples of terrible heartbreak. I was a Special Agent with the Secret Service and remember the atmosphere after 9-11. The book thing was not a real tragedy by any means. But, over time I got mad. However, my anger had nothing to do with the unfortunate timing of the book release. It was something else.
When I was initially coming up with the concept of Resolve, I knew I wanted it to be a murder mystery and for the story to somehow involve distance running. I wanted this to happen because of the stark contrast between a positive event like a marathon and an atrocity such as a murder. Distance races are wonderful examples of how the human spirit strives to push toward new limits and how the mind can be convinced that the body can do amazing things. In my opinion, running is not only a wonderful way to exercise, but is a confidence-building, inspiring, anti-depressant. To create a fictional account where the possibility of a homicide is present during such a wonderful event is one thing. To see it come to life in Boston was another. That was why I was mad. Some very misguided people took something very positive and beautiful and tried to destroy it. Tried.
Over the past few months, fewer and fewer people have made any mental connection between my book and Boston. The truth is there really wasn’t much of a connection to begin with. Resolve is set in Pittsburgh and has nothing to do with terrorism. However, it was understandable people made the inevitable link between the words “marathon” and “murder”. I have to admit, I’m glad the connection has mostly vanished and I rarely have to take the time to remind people that the book has underlying messages about the wonders of distance running and the determination we are capable of as human beings. But, as I’ve discovered throughout the publication process, authors are greatly responsible for the marketing of their work before and after a book is published. Publishers can only do so much. It brings up an interesting question: How does an author market his/her work when the work addresses topics that may make others uncomfortable?
I can tell you that in the immediate aftermath of the bombing, I did not market. Not only did I have no desire to, but it would have been tasteless and tacky, not to mention incredibly insensitive. Writing is not my “real” job and my family does not depend on that income, so shutting down the marketing was a no-brainer. Over time, I gradually started marketing again, but tried to stress the positive components of the book and of the sport of distance running.
Now, when I’m marketing I could probably go back to writing and talking about the murder part of the murder mystery, but I’ve found I enjoy discussing the positive much more than the negative. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy a good murder mystery, but I enjoy them more when the protagonist is someone you can really root for and when the plot takes us to the heights of the human condition and not just the depths we try to avoid. Is this the most effective way for an author to market a book? I don’t have a clue. I have never enjoyed the marketing aspect anyway and probably never will. But, am I more comfortable pointing out the inspirational rather than the simply dwelling on the dark side of life? Absolutely. Besides… this is Pittsburgh. It’s all about staring down challenges and testing our resolve.
J.J. Hensley is the author of RESOLVE, a thriller set in modern day Pittsburgh. As a former police officer and Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service, he has drawn upon his experiences in law enforcement, and a love of distance running, to create a novel full of suspense and insight. Visit him at www.hensley-books.com or www.facebook.com/hensleybooks. Resolve is available on Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, and several other outlets.
Mr. Hensley graduated from Penn State University with a B.S. in Administration of Justice and has a M.S. degree in Criminal Justice Administration from Columbia Southern University. The author is currently a training supervisor with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. He lives with his beautiful wife, daughter, and two dogs outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.