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Brief Interview with J. Conrad Guest, Author of A Retrospect in Death

retrospect_thSECOND WIND: Tell us something about you, an interesting fact, or an unusual event.

J. CONRAD: I once met actor Jimmy Stewart at an airport, back in the early eighties. I asked him for an autograph, but the only thing on which he could write was some cash I had in my wallet. I handed him a dollar bill and he looked at me kind of strangely, as if I were asking him to break the law. After a moment, he inked his name to the bill, and I stashed it back into my wallet. Sadly, today, I can’t recall what happened to that autographed currency. I imagine I spent it without realizing it, and I wonder from time to time whether whoever has it knows what they have.

SECOND WIND: How did you choose the setting or settings in your  novel A RETROSPECT IN DEATH? Are they places you’ve lived or visited?

J. CONRAD: I’m a native Michigander, so I chose the Detroit area, including Ann Arbor and Brighton, as the settings for A Retrospect in Death. Even though I believe writers should know what they write, writers are often advised to write what they know, which made writing about the places easy—many were places I’ve frequented myself. Of course that lends much more authenticity to the narrative.

SECOND WIND: Does your hero (or heroine) have flaws?

J. CONRAD: All of my protagonists are what I like to call anti-heroes; that is to say, flawed. I often choose to write in first person, which makes it easy to write from a suspect point of view. This gives the reader a biased view of the story as opposed to the unbiased, omnipotent perspective of a third person point of view.

SECOND WIND: Please tell us more about a A RETROSPECT IN DEATH.

J. CONRAD: A RETROSPECT IN DEATH begins with a man’s death. The reader is taken to the other side where the narrator encounters his higher self—the part of him that is immortal and connected to the creator. The protagonist learns (much to his chagrin) that he must return to the lifecycle. But first he must be “debriefed” by his higher self, and so they set about discussing the man’s previous life—in reverse chronological order: knowing the end but retracing the journey, searching for the breadcrumbs left along the way.

A RETROSPECT IN DEATH is a story about discovery. Consider that only in death can you really know, and understand, who and why you are—or were. And then ask yourself, at that point, is it too late? Does it even matter?

You can learn more about me and my books from Second Wind Publishing, LLC.

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Excerpt From “A Retrospect in Death” by J. Conrad Guest

retrospect_thOliver Wendell Holmes wrote: “After 60 years the stern sentence of the burial service seems to have a meaning that one did not notice in former years. There begins to be something personal about it.” While John Oxenham wrote: “For death begins with life’s first breath; and life begins at touch of death.”

A Retrospect in Death is a story about discovery. You think you know yourself? Perhaps you only think you do. Do those closest to us know us better than we know ourselves; or do they, as we often insist, know jack? Consider that only in death can you really know, and understand, who and why you are—or were. And then ask yourself: At that point, is it too late? Does it even matter?

Darker than any of J. Conrad Guest’s previous novels, while also more humorous, it portends not only a search for the meaning of life, but also seeks to determine why we are as we are: prewired at conception, or the product of our environment?


My room was in Art Centre Hospital, on Woodward Avenue in Detroit.

The race riots were in full bloom in 1967, and from my first floor room I watched armed National Guard troops drive past my window in jeeps.

Mom left – Dad had stayed home – just before Ed Sullivan came on, telling me, “Good night, honey. I’ll be back in the morning, before you go into surgery. Don’t worry. Everything will be all right.” She sounded somewhat worried herself, although I wasn’t. This was my first night away from home; it was an adventure.

A short time later, a male intern came in with a chrome bowl and a straight razor to tell me it was time for my shave.

“I’m eleven,” I said. “I don’t shave.”

He grinned and told me to raise my hospital gown.

With that, he proceeded to lather up my balls with soap, and then shave them.

I was on edge, listening to the rasp of the blade against my balls. Rodney Dangerfield was doing a stand-up act on the TV. He told a joke about being held up by a mugger with a knife. “I could tell it wasn’t a professional job,” he said. “There was butter on it.” I heard the intern chuckle, which left me feeling even testier over my predicament.

The intern left; a few minutes later, a nurse came in, a plump black woman.

“Time for your enema,” she said.

“What’s an enema?”

“I put this,” she told me, holding up a plastic nozzle attached to a hose that was in turn attached to a bag of what appeared to be soapy water, “into your backside and release the contents of this bag into your colon.”

My eyes got the size of silver dollars, prompting the intern to laugh. I watched her immense breasts shake from the ferocity of her laughter, its pitch that of a baritone.

“Don’t worry. It’s not as bad as it sounds. It’s to clean out your colon before surgery. Now roll over onto your side.

I did as I was told; a moment later, feeling violated, I felt the nozzle inserted into my rectum. The flood of the water felt warm as my colon expanded to accommodate it.

“Almost there,” the nurse said. I felt as if my colon were about to explode.

A moment later, she withdrew the nozzle, and then told me to head to the bathroom to release the water. Like I needed to be told.

I raced to the bathroom and sat just in the nick of time, releasing the water, and everything that accompanied it, into the porcelain bowl.

I sat there for about fifteen minutes as my bowels emptied in sequential movements – like the orchestra to which my parents had taken me and Francine to see over the summer: long classical pieces played in what our program called “movements.” Every time I thought the musicians were done playing, they launched into yet another movement. Now, each time I felt I was done, I’d lean forward to wipe my backside only to feel yet another movement.

When I finally crawled back into my bed, I wondered what new dread might await me next in this little shop of horrors.

My surgery was scheduled for Monday morning, and a nurse came in first thing to give me a shot of something, which left me feeling groggy.

A short time later, my bed was wheeled out of my room and toward the operating room. My mother walked alongside me, with her hand on top of mine.

At the door to the operating room, my mother again reassured me that everything was going to be all right. At eleven, I had no clue as to the dangers of surgery. I was about to be cut open and couldn’t wait to tell my buddies of the ordeal, sans the shave and the enema parts. Like a soldier wounded in a war, I intended to bear my scar proudly.

I was wheeled under the brightest lights I’d ever seen, and a mask was put over my face; a voice told me to count backward from one hundred. I got to ninety-seven and…


Joe_Guest-171x271bJ. Conrad Guest is the author of Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings, available from Second Wind Publishing. Backstop was nominated as a Michigan Notable Book in 2010, and was adopted by the Illinois Institute of Technology as required reading for their spring 2011 course, “Baseball: America’s Literary Pastime.” He is also the author of One Hot January and January’s Thaw, both available from Second Wind.

J. Conrad appears on Facebook, Twitter, his website, and on his author page at Second Wind Publishing.


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Interview with J. Conrad Guest, Author of Retrospect in Death

retrospect_thWhat is your book about?

A Retrospect in Death is a story about discovery. Who hasn’t wondered about the meaning of life, the origin of the universe, what we’ll find on the other side? The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche theorized that some of us are born into the world destined for greatness. The rest of us he referred to as the bungled and the botched. They’re teased with greatness, but they never see their dreams come true, no matter how hard they try. They get thrown under buses, gunned down when someone goes postal in public. What a world it would be if everyone who reached for the stars saw their dreams come true.

The protagonist in A Retrospect in Death, unnamed throughout, leaving the reader to infer he could be anyone—hopefully connecting to them in a highly personal way—dies at the onset. The reader is taken to the other side of the Great Divide, where the protagonist meets his higher self, the part of him that is connected to the Creator. The protagonist learns, to his vexation, that he must return to the lifecycle. But not before they discuss his past life, the mistakes he made, the disappointments he encountered, why he gave up on love.

The risk I took was telling his story in reverse chronological order, beginning at the end and ending with his childhood, as they search for the breadcrumbs—those defining moments that led to future choices.

Darker than any of my previous novels, and also more humorous, it portends not only a search for the meaning of life, but also seeks to determine why we are as we are: prewired at conception, or the product of our environment?

What inspired you to write this particular story?

I’d just finished writing my fifth novel, and was kicking around ideas for my next project. I came across a short story I’d written a year or so prior, which I’d posted to my blog. It chronicles a man’s death and subsequent rebirth to a new life. I considered expanding this to novel length, breaking off into a prologue the death sequence and adding a meeting with his higher self, and using the end of the short story for the end of the novel. In between, I envisioned enough content, maybe a hundred thousand words, to fill out the three major stages of his life: old age, middle age, youth, and childhood. The novel ended up 110,000 words, each section approximately 27,000 words—by far my longest novel to date.

What inspired me was a desire to write something that was more honest than anything I’d written before, along with a fascination with death. Although I’ve not yet reached 60 years, I relate to Oliver Wendell Holmes’s adage: “After 60 years the stern sentence of the burial service seems to have a meaning that one did not notice in former years. There begins to be something personal about it.” Our society fears death, when it is the most natural thing in life. And while the health care industry frets over which disease is the leading cause of death, I’ve always felt it was birth. Or as John Oxenham wrote: “For death begins with life’s first breath; and life begins at touch of death.”

How much of yourself is hidden in the characters in the book?

I dug deep for this novel, opened a vein and bled profusely, writing a lot from personal experience, particularly those from my youth. I wouldn’t call it autobiographical, because I endeavored to fictionalize much of it. Friends who’ve read it have asked if this or that incident is based on my life, but I’m vague in my answers.

How much of a story do you have in mind before you start writing it?

Very little. I usually start with a beginning, an ending, and only a concept of what fills the middle. I tend to let my characters take me where they wish. I act only as a channel for their voices.

How do you develop and differentiate your characters?

I often use people from own life, disguised of course, so that they don’t recognize themselves. This makes it easy for me to differentiate them, since I can imagine the true life characters and hear their voices. Several people may recognize themselves in A Retrospect in Life, and some of them are not portrayed in a flattering light. But they are not people I expect will read it anyway.

How (or when) do you decide that you are finished writing a story?

With a vague idea of total word count, I typically envision a theme for the story. I see each chapter as a short story, each loosely connected to its predecessor and foreshadowing its successor. With a concept for the ending, I just write to that end, letting my imagination and the characters take me where they will. I’m often surprised by the journey, which I think is good. If I’m surprised, surely my readers will be, too.

In my current work in progress, I was startled by a discovery I made about the protagonist after I was nearly 10,000 words in, and that discovery shaped the entire piece.

Is there a message in your writing you want readers to grasp?

For A Retrospect in Death, I hope that readers will look to within, connect with the story on a personal level. Like most of my novels, A Retrospect in Death is not mere escapism, but an introspective look at life’s ideals—love, loss and grief. It may sound cliché, but life is not about our failures and successes, but about the choices we make, or fail to make. Do we allow those failures and successes to define us, for good or bad? Do we learn from the past, or stare at it, choosing to not live each new day as if it were a clean slate?

Do you think writing this book changed your life? How so?

I like to think each novel I write leaves me changed in some way. Not only do I learn something about the craft of writing, but I learn something of myself, through my characters. I find the creative process wonderfully therapeutic.

In A Retrospect in Death, I reconnected with my lost youth in a way that rejuvenated my present, and led me to conclude that the innocence of my youth isn’t as lost as I feared.

What has changed for you personally since you wrote your first book?

I’m a much better writer than I was while writing my first novel. I was flying by the seat of my pants twenty years ago. Still, I must’ve done something right. I recently launched a third edition of that first novel, and took the liberty of making some minor changes to the text and adding an afterward.

Typically, I don’t read my work once it goes to print, for fear of wanting to make wholesale changes; but that wasn’t the case here. I found I still liked the novel, the story and the characters. Would I write it differently if I were writing it today? Absolutely; but I didn’t wish to change that. I wanted it to stand in its rightful place in my body of work, to serve as a sort of measuring stick of where I was at that point in my life, both as a man and as a writer.

While writing may not come any easier today, I’ve streamlined the process. Twenty years ago, I was writing was a hobby, and frankly, I had no expectations that I’d write another. It was only during the writing of that first one that the idea for a trilogy began to take shape—two more novels based on the Joe January character, One Hot January and January’s Thawresulted. Once I learned to enjoy the creative process, without the burden of publication, I became a writer. Perhaps not so surprisingly, publication followed.

Do you have any rituals that you follow before sitting down to write?

Oh, yes. I typically write on Sunday morning, using the remainder of the week to revise and polish. I wake up around seven, have breakfast, put on a pot of coffee, and select a cigar from my humidor. For me, writing is all about ritual, in this case, the ritual of selecting the right cigar; unwrapping it, inhaling the fragrance of the wrapper, snipping the head, lighting it, and watching the smoke fill my den. I may have no idea where I’ll pick up the story, or what I hope to accomplish that morning, but I’ve learned to trust that something will always come. I may start with a few revisions, but before long, the muse shows up to peek over my shoulder, if only to see what all the tapping is about.

For my weeknight revisions, I go through the cigar ritual again, but instead of coffee, I sip on a glass of bourbon or scotch.

What are you working on right now?

I hope to complete my current work in progress, A World Without Music, in the next few weeks. I started with a prologue that describes a walk-in from another planet inhabiting the lives of notable historical figures—Jesus during the crucifixion, St. Augustinus, Bach (where he becomes fascinated with music—his world evolved without music), and Thomas Jefferson (who also loved music, practicing his violin three hours each day), before stepping into a present day fictional character, where he interacts with a Gulf War veteran whose PTSD cost him his marriage. As a bass player in a jazz-blues quartet, he seeks to infuse his world with the music he lost, the result of a traumatic experience while in Kuwait.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your work-in-progress?

Can a Gulf War veteran suffering PTSD finally leave behind his past to find the music that will make his life worth living?

Are you writing to reach a particular kind of reader?

I’m hesitant to say that I don’t write genre fiction, so I don’t write for a specific audience. I write to amuse myself, and in a way that challenges me as a writer. The first display I bypass in any brick and mortar bookstore I may patronize is the bestseller table. I enjoy reading novels that don’t fit a genre or formula. It’s that audience I hope will find my work — readers who don’t read simply to be entertained, who choose books with which they feel comfortable, perhaps knowing ahead of time what they’re purchasing. I seek the audience that prefers books that strive to do nothing short of changing the world, and that force them to think.

Where can people learn more about your books?

You can learn more about me and my books from Second Wind Publishing, LLC.


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