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Author Interview: J. Shep

Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Katie Specht is talking with J. Shep, author of The December Issue.

FQ: Your bio states that you have worked in education and also directed plays. Can you share a bit about the details of your professional background prior to writing The December Issue?

SHEP: I have worked as a high school teacher of multiple languages and have taught at the university level, as well. While I have written and directed two one-act plays, I mostly direct established plays.

FQ: The story of The December Issue is rather unique. I have never read a book with a plot similar to this before. From where did you derive your inspiration for The December Issue?

SHEP: I do not have a specific source of inspiration. Many things inspire me: a song or riff of music, a scene from a movie, a proverb or adage. In the case of this specific piece, I think the plot and character development were guided by theme. A theme I was aiming for was prioritizing the living of one’s life for others; nowadays, that sometimes gets forgotten even when placing a healthy importance on self. In anchoring the plot and characters to this theme, I seem to have found unique situations in which to place Paul, linking them to each other in a series of story arcs.

FQ: You have another book planned for release in 2024, entitled After Me. What can you share with your readers about this upcoming book? Will it follow the same characters as The December Issue, or are you developing a new cast of characters for this book?

SHEP: After Me is indeed scheduled for a 2024 release, and I’m so excited about that! The novel is, however, entirely different from The December Issue. The December Issue is a light-hearted, fast-paced novel about a man trying to enjoy his retirement. After Me is about a boy’s first summer at his family’s home in France without his parents. It is deliberately slow-moving in some ways while advancing plot and capturing and developing a rich canvas of characters. One thing they have in common is a showcasing of intergenerational relationships.

FQ: You shared that this book was originally a novella that concluded after the end of Part I. What made you decide to continue writing the story? Once you decided to continue the story, did you already have a clear vision as to how the rest of the story would progress or was it made known to you as you continued writing?

SHEP: The cast of characters was so rich that some of my early readers wished to see them developed, to get to know them better. I also felt the treatment of “the decline of class” was not as thorough as it could be. I think the “Part I” story still works as a novella and would feel relatively satisfying as an isolated read, but the expansion into the novel is more fulfilling and expands on the clashes over class presented initially in the first part. As far as a clear vision goes, I did not have one from the onset. I let my imagination wander and found Paul in certain situations that appealed to me. I saw Mikey and Eli, Claribel and Peony, for example, in different situations, and, in writing a novel instead of a novella, I could put them there and work with them.

FQ: The character of Derek Braynard was an interesting one, to say the least. He was the epitome of a spiteful person who held a grudge against Paul for over 50 years. How did you develop this character that readers (myself included) will love to hate?

SHEP: The sad reality is that I grounded him in reality. While the grudge itself was not anything I have really heard of it, long-lasting grudges over early-life events are real. Here Derek finds himself reconnected with the St. Catherine’s Cove peers of his youth thanks to Mikey’s acceptance into the McGuinty School of Journalism. This reignites the grudge against Paul after years of distance despite working in the same field. Of course, most of the drama of the novel revolves around reactions to Derek’s targeting Mikey at the university, not what had happened years ago. The reality of the grudge and of the relationships, I think, helps readers take to Derek while disapproving of his actions and his response to the resurfacing of the grudge against Paul.

FQ: As I was reading the story and the events kept happening in Paul's life, which, in turn, disrupted his plans for retirement, I really felt for this man. What was your goal in having Paul endure these trials and tribulations?

SHEP: The goal was to reiterate that Paul could not start his retirement as he envisioned it; the events, themselves, showcased how his time was being spent in reality as compared to how he wanted to spend it.

FQ: The scene near the end where Derek and Paul face off on the pier was exciting and horrifying all at the same time. It was written with such detail that I could visualize the waves crashing onto the pier as several characters fought for their lives. How did you decide that this was how the feud between Derek and Paul would finally conclude?

SHEP: I’m so glad you enjoyed it! It was important to pull things together, not only for Paul and Derek, but for the rest of the cast, in the town it all began and the town to which they all return. An outdoor showdown was appropriate, I felt, because it coincided with the constant attention by the press that Paul can’t seem to avoid, that frequent stepping into the spotlight unwittingly.

FQ: Not only is Paul faced with numerous obstacles during the course of the story, but so are many other characters, including Mikey, Claribel, Father Soplido and Lucretia. As they each dealt with their own issues, I kept noticing how positive, upbeat, and classy their attitudes remained. This seemed to be a theme throughout your story. Would you say this was one message you were hoping to impart to your readers? Were there any other significant lessons you hope readers will hold onto after reading The December Issue?

SHEP: You might be giving them too much credit, but I like that you see them that way. I think people in general try—or at least wish—to handle their challenges with grace and class, so observing how these characters do so might parallel real life. To those who do not try or wish to do so, maybe these characters’ actions will serve as a model of what to do and what not to do when facing challenges. At the least, it may provide food for thought about reactions and thinking through difficult situations.

FQ: The setting of The December Issue is a quaint town on Lake Superior called Saint Catherine's Cove. Is this a purely fictional location, or did you model it after a place you have lived or visited yourself?

SHEP: While I have spent time on Lake Superior and truly enjoyed my visits there—I especially love seeing the Wisconsin coastline from the ferry to the Apostle Islands—St. Catherine’s Cove is entirely fictional, from the houses to the shops, from the characters to the black and white lighthouse. It was fun imagining this small town on a Great Lake!

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