James Steel, Strength and Conditioning Coordinator at the University of Pennsylvania and owner of Bas' Barbell Club, recently interviewed me for his blog. It was a pleasure. James is an excellent judge of literature and a very insightful reader. I really enjoy when readers reach out to say what they liked or didn't and most importantly what mattered. Check it out at:
John Hamilton Interview
I was on Amazon the other day, looking at book recommendations according to my purchases, and I see a book called A Hell Called Ohio. It's 4.99 on Kindle, and I read the reviews. It was cheap, and I liked the reviews, so I bought it.
The book blew me away. It hooked me from the start. I couldn't put it down.
I wrote a review on Amazon and bought the hard copy. Then I emailed the author, John Hamilton, telling him how much I enjoyed the book and asked John if I could interview him for my blog. He agreed, so here we go.
His answers are unique and well thought out.
JS: John, I love your book, A Hell Called Ohio. I was thinking about this last night: To me, the book is about a very unique man, Warrell. He lives in a refurbished gas station, he loves his dog, and he works in a metal factory. He has saved enough money to not work, but he loves working so much that he sometimes works overtime for free. He fights his friend because fighting makes him feel alive. He loves the library and reading, he can get emotional (crying and dancing alone), without being seen as soft. He has a relationship with two girls at once, he walks out his door and takes his dog hunting, He is a deep thinker and highly intelligent and blows away the typical stereotype of a blue collar worker that one is used to reading about in print. Does that sort of sum it up?
JH: Better than I’ve ever been able to sum it up. Can I use that as my elevator pitch?
JS: John, we have to do the perfunctory tell me a little bit about yourself.
JH: I grew up in the industrial Midwest and went to Michigan State where I studied history, philosophy and religion. I still read those disciplines. My mom was a school teacher so there was never a question of not going to school. My parents were cool though. They said go, study what interests you and then figure out what to do. I’ve been in trucks and construction ever since.
I moved to Washington and got my Class A CDL at 22. That’s the earliest age you can be insured. I spent a couple years driving long haul and then drove in-state flatbed and beer. You get real good at throwing chains on if you’re going over the pass every day. Eventually, I got a good union job driving concrete mixers, dump truck and boom truck in Seattle. In between I worked as a commercial fisherman in Alaska and California. After that I switched trades and entered the apprenticeship in the Operator’s union. I worked dirt, mostly bulldozers, for a couple years and then got my crane licenses. I never journeyed out though and I regret that. Life just took over. Now I split my time between the military and writing.
JS: Where did you grow up?
JH: I grew up in Saginaw Michigan. My dad was a foundry man for GM. He got transferred to the Defiance OH plant in my junior year of high school so I graduated down there.
JS: Biggest influences growing up?
JH: Personally? My dad and uncles. My grandmothers for sure. Professionally it was Hemingway. I loved his style. It was true art.
JS: How did you get interested in going into the armed forces?
JH: I come from a military family. My dad and uncle were army infantry officers and another couple uncles were marines. I always thought that was my path and then the cold war ended, the wall came down, when I was in college so I shelved it for a few years. I joined at 35‑- the latest age possible. The war was on and I was already a construction dude so I joined the reserve as a heavy equipment operator. My plan was to do one deployment, do my duty, and then get out. But I liked it. The military feels natural to me. My dad said the same thing. I just made Senior Chief and I’m in it for twenty. I’ve been to Afghanistan, Iraq, Korea and all over the US. Time flies but war and separation really make you appreciate family and home. I’m a big fan of the US. “The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for.” - Hemingway
JS: You are a Seabee. What are the duties that they perform?
JH: We are the Navy’s combat engineers. We started in WW2 when the Navy needed construction pros to build bases across the Pacific island campaign. They recruited experienced tradesmen instead of kids. The reserves are similar to the WW2 units. We can out build the active duty guys because we’ve done the job for money, we work smarter and faster.
My favorite duty was drilling water wells in Afghanistan. After decades of war there was no infrastructure and no water records so we had to prospect. It was like landing on the moon, but with more rockets and mortars. We worked 24/7 for months, the drill never stopped. We got good water and had a hole collapse from lack of supplies. We even invented some tooling and techniques. My team had the record for deepest well at the time, 2040’. We stopped there because we ran out of drill steel. The first thousand feet was through alluvial layers and was a real bitch. We broke bits and had a bunch of problems. We hit solid granite at 1000’, hard cased the hole and then threw on our air hammer. We did the second thousand in a few days with two giant air compressors run parallel to clear the hole. That was good living.
Have you ever read ‘Artemis, the honest well digger’ by John Cheever? I’m not a Cheever fan but that one is real good.
JS: How did you get started as a writer?
JH: My sixth grade teacher read The Outsiders aloud to us. That was it. I was hooked. From then on I knew I wanted to write but it was just a matter of how and about what.
JS: Biggest influences as a writer?
JH: Walt Whitman, Hemingway (For Whom the Bell Tolls), Jim Harrison (Sundog), Bukowski (Post Office), Larry Brown (Fay, Joe), Don Pollack (Heavenly Table and Devil All the Time)- he’s the best thing going right now. I’m definitely a fan of the Americans but also Houellebecq, Solzhenitsyn, Larteguy, Brodsky…
JS: Besides writing, what else do you enjoy doing?
JH: I’m getting back into hunting and fishing. I bought a little 16’ fishing boat with a buddy I used to commercial fish with. We go after Dungeness crab.
Mostly I do gun stuff. I take classes and shoot contests (speed steel, 3 gun, trap and skeet). Shooting is a lifetime skill and you can always learn and get better.
Also, I run and work out. The military has a culture of fitness that I really enjoy. There’s no excuse for a fat service member. We get paid to work out and your strength or endurance may make a life or death difference. More professions need dress uniforms as a literal gut check.
I like to run. Five to eight miles is my sweet spot and I listen to books. You can get through some serious classics if you devote an hour or more a day. The Navy’s standards are a little skewed but you have to learn to play the game. Twice a year I have to weigh in at a target of 186 pounds. I like to lift the classic three- squat, deadlift and overhead press and hover around 200 when I’m committed. My last weigh in was right after SERE school and I had just shed 15 pounds in a week and nailed 186. But it’s getting tougher as I get older. Exercise is the best thing for mental health.
JS: What is your writing process? Are you a morning or evening writer? Do you listen to music while writing? If so, what type of music?
JH: I’m a morning guy if I can get out of bed. I really like waking up next to my wife. Years away make you appreciate that. Remember that scene in Doctor Zhivago when Klaus Kinski is looking at the old couple snuggling in the freight car? I always think of that. Love is ungovernable by the wealthy, the coastal elites or whoever is the bad guy de jour.
Anyway, morning. The earlier the better. Music comes and goes. I listened to Son Volt’s Trace a lot writing Hell. It fits the mood. Sometimes when writing I listen to classical or metal but mostly it’s silence. I was into punk rock in my twenties in Seattle. We had a lot of good shows- good healthy violence with a little street fighting thrown in. Then I moved to rockabilly and now it’s mostly country. That seems like a natural progression for a lot of my friends.
JS: I enjoyed the hell out of the Warell character. He understands the primal nature of man as evidenced from fighting his friend for the joy of it, but he is a learned guy, smart and also sensitive. What was your thought process when you were creating his character?
JH: He just seems like a normal guy to me, like one of my friends. I knew what I didn’t want. It pisses me off when I read these books supposedly about working people and they are all Neanderthals, or junkies, or Klansmen and all stupid. It’s a caricature. It’s popular with the MFA crowd. I’d bet they’ve never worked a real job in their lives and have soft hands. That shit is unhealthy for society in general. Kids read these books and if affects how they view the world. We need to bring back shop class but that’s another discussion.
JS: I saw on your blog a picture of you and your buddy all bloodied up but with your arms around each other. Can you tell me about the picture and how this all went down?
JH: Ha! That’s a long tradition of battling every few years. It started one fishing season in Wrangell or Ketchikan Alaska. We get drunk and then see who wins. I usually lose. That picture was after a few months of boxing and I kept working angles on him. A little knowledge goes a long way. Mostly that picture is of brotherly love. He grew up very rough but is one of the smartest and well-read people I know, definitely the toughest.
JS: Warrell’s life almost reads like a diary. Is any of the book based on your personal experiences?
JH: Hmmm, all? Not really but everything comes from something similar, maybe just the emotion. I’ve worked in factories, had crazy dogs, wanted to be a better worker than I was and dated waitresses. I even dated a librarian but she was nothing like Emily except for the long red hair. When you are a kid and want to be a writer you hear, over and over, write about what you know. Then, for me at least, I read all these popular books (pretending to be literature) about suburban angst and sexual frustration and wondered how I would ever write literature. Reading authors like Bukowski, Harrison and Brown gave me the idea that I could really write about what I know.
JS: I love the bar scene, where the guy sits in Warrell’s girlfriend’s seat. In a typical book, it would have ended in a huge brawl or someone getting hit on the head with a beer bottle. But the situation is diffused without violence which happens in real life 99% of the time. To me, that encapsulates the “realness” of the book. And instead of it being boring, it actually made me think of the book as almost nonfiction. Real stuff day after day. Not crazy dramatic, but life that happens like it really happens. Was that intentional?
JH: Warrell is a smart guy. Smart enough to know violence isn’t a half measure game. To win you have to go faster and with more violence of action than the other guy. Is that worth someone’s seat? No way. He’s just tired and wants his woman to love him. The college kid might as well be the DMV, just another annoyance.
JS: Another scene that I really enjoyed was the scene with the guns in Warrell’s place and Emily asking about them. I was like, oh no, its going to be an antigun scene and I am going close the book, but Warrell handled it just right with Emily, knowing that all of it was a little scary for her, so he was sensitive to that, but matter of factly explains the way in which he uses the guns. Very well done. Not a question about it, just wanted to compliment you on how well you wrote it. And it made me keep reading!
JH: Thanks. That wouldn’t even occur to me. That scene is true in the sense that I’ve always had guns around and they have no aura to me. They’re just tools. Getting paid to carry a gun really changes things too. It feels natural to have a gun on your hip. You watch a bunch of Americans standing around discussing a professional problem with their shooting hand resting on the butt of a pistol and it seems almost genetic. Afghans are the only other people that seem so wedded to guns but they have crazy, unsafe habits.
JS: What’s the next book about? How far along are you?
JH: It’s about three ex-fisherman living in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle. One drives a concrete mixer. There’s a teamster strike, waitresses, punk rock and motorcycles. Hmm, I wonder where I get these ideas? I hope it’s not an elegy. The neighborhood as I still imagine it hardly exists anymore. I’d say it’s 80% done. I want to have it finished in the next couple months. I’m scheduled to take another team out next year.
JS: I just want to thank you for the opportunity to interview you for the blog. I hope this helps you sell a few books!
JH: Thanks brother.