Jeff McKown, at 52, has published his first novel, Solid Ground, a semi-autobiographical story about Conor McLeish, a gay man with a good heart coming to terms with growing up in the South and living through traumas that have left him entering middle age damaged and struggling.
There are parallels between the life of Conor and his creator; Conor works for a corporate book retailer, while McKown used to work for Borders Books. But McKown points out that his own family, for instance, would not be able to draw direct lines between the fictional characters in the book and real people in real life.
In Solid Ground, Conor’s former English teacher visits him during a family gathering to offer him praise (and much more) for his newly published book. In real life, Henry Marchand, who was McKown’s writing professor at Monterey Peninsula College, offers this bit of praise for his former student:
“Jeff McKown's debut novel is an emotionally powerful, well crafted and compellingly written story of love, loss, self-sabotage and, perhaps, acceptance of human frailty in innumerable forms...characters and scenes in this book have stayed with me.”
The print story appeared in the Jan. 25 issue of the Weekly—click here for that. Below is more of the interview with McKown, as well as an excerpt from his novel.
Weekly: What was it like working for Borders Books?
Jeff McKown: I used to run all the Borders bookstores from San Francisco to [Sand City]. When I left, I had about 20 stores. It was an adventure. Borders was the greatest company I ever worked for. It was a rollercoaster ride at the end, fighting for its life, struggling against Amazon, the new world order, or technology. I left a few months before they went out of business.
What did you learn there about books and publishing?
Retail books is more like retail than publishing. I did understand the business, and what makes books sell, the structures involved. My publisher is very small. They print through CreateSpace, a subsidiary of Amazon. I knew that bookstores would want to deal with wholesalers, and not their competition. I had some insight into how retail companies want to acquire books: don’t go in 2pm Saturday and want to have a sit-down with a manager.
It seems like Conor is beleaguered by relationship issues, but also complicit in creating or exacerbating some of them. Is the main conflict in the book internal, from his past?
Yes. When I first started the book, it was going to be his coming of middle age, and his reckoning with his coming out. I was partly inspired by growing up gay in the South in the ‘80s. The story evolved so much over time, that it became more about all the damage that all of us bring into middle age. Here’s this guy coming up on 40 and he wants to leave that baggage behind. He wants to find some solid ground. When he was a kid, he was pawned off to an aunt and uncle [due to] his own father’s alcoholism. A couple of editors were concerned that having a main character who has fidelity and addiction issues will impact [readers’] sympathy. I took a risk. Because we all have baggage and damage.
Would family and friends be able to point out who in the book is who in real life?
No. It’s really not about me. There are elements I’m inspired by in my real life. Near the end, there’s a big family reunion at a beach house. We used to do that. The events themselves are completely fabricated. One exception is June. It’s dedicated to my grandmother, whose name is Gwendolyn June Humble. She was an outspoken, vivacious person.
Who could you see playing Conor in a movie?
I imagined Paul Rudd.
Anything you would have done differently?
I don’t have an agent. I might have pursued that part a little harder because it’s hard to be your own cheerleader, marketer and agent all the time. I’m very satisfied with Nine Star Press. They’ve lived up to every single thing they said. They’re a responsible company. They’re an LGBT focused press, which I had to weigh. I don’t think of this as an LGBT book. It’s a book of fiction that happens to have an LGBT character.
You grew up in Pensacola, Florida. Is it anything like Prunedale where you live now?
Pensacola is a Navy town. They call it the Redneck Riviera. But it’s a town. Prunedale is far more rural. Yesterday, in my back yard, I saw four bucks [male deer]. We now have high speed internet, praise God. My life is changed.
Jeff McKown © 2017, All Rights Reserved
I was never worth much. Growing up, I wasn’t particularly clever or funny or handsome. I didn’t sing like an angel or say the darnedest things, and I was never the adorable kid in the tiny plaid vest and bow tie. I played Little League for a while, but I was mostly tucked away in right field, which in retrospect didn’t matter much since no one was there to watch me. My mother was too busy drying out my father to have time for shit like that.
Don’t misunderstand, I wasn’t a bad kid. I didn’t light fires or torture cats. I just wasn’t a kid anyone fought for. If it weren’t for my grandmother, I might never have known there was anything decent in me. June was my one true believer, the only one who waved my flag, tattered piece of shit that it was. She was busy with her own life—sipping whiskey at blackjack tables and flirting with strangers—but she found time to pay attention to me, which in the end is all a kid really wants.
Some people learn from their childhood bullshit. They overcome nearly insurmountable obstacles and get invited to appear on Oprah, where they shine like beacons for the rest of the less fortunate. Others just grow up and make one awful mistake after another. I’ve always been somewhere in the middle, half fuck-up and half hidden-heart-of-gold, the kind of guy you love in spite of the horrible shit he’s done.
Jeff McKown reads and signs his book 1pm Saturday, Jan. 27, at Old Capitol Books, 559 Tyler St., Monterey. Free. 333-0383.