John Ames has a master’s degree in English from the University of Florida, where he was a Ford Fellow. After graduation, he built a rustic house and lived for several years on the edge of a spiritual community located near Gainesville, Florida. John’s search for enlightenment ended when he decided that he was too far from a movie theater. He moved inside the Gainesville city limits and taught English and film for thirty years at Santa Fe College.
He has produced and acted in numerous short films and videos, including the cable TV series the “Tub Interviews,” wherein all the interviewees were required to be in a bathtub. For ten years he reviewed movies for PBS radio station WUFT. He has appeared as a standup comedian and has designed and marketed Florida-themed lamps. He coauthored Second Serve: The Renée Richards Story (Stein and Day, 1983) and its sequel No Way Renée: The Second Half of My Notorious Life (Simon & Schuster, 2007), and Speaking of Florida (University Presses of Florida, 1993).
His recent book is a coming-of-age novel titled Adventures in Nowhere.
You can visit his website at www.johnamesauthor.com.
Q: Thank you for this interview, John Ames. Can you tell us what your latest book, Adventures in Nowhere, is all about?
Adventures in Nowhere is about a droll ten-year-old boy who is cagy beyond his years and needs all of his talents to cope with some tough problems. Danny Ryan’s father is dangerous and overpowering, one sister is seriously ill, the other is an emotional time bomb, and his mother is in denial, all of them cooped up in a little three-room house where there is no place to hide. Ironically, the house is located in a beautiful spot that would be a wonderland for the boy if things weren’t so bad at home. As it is, Danny thinks he is stuck in nowhere, but nowhere does offer a wealth of eccentric characters who draw him into an adventure that leads Danny to an odd triumph. Though he sometimes doubts his sanity along the way, Danny eventually comes to realize that the ugliness in life is balanced by great beauty.
The action in the book is from the perspective of Danny Ryan, who one reader has said must be the most thoughtful little boy in history. His father’s instability has made him watchful and inventive. Danny has a naturally wry perspective, and he uses his wit and imagination to manage his tricky situation.
Danny’s best friend, Alfred Bagley, is his opposite. He is exuberant and thoughtless, inclined to ask questions like,” What would you do if a big black cigar appeared in your mouth?” Danny is at once amused and bemused by Alfred’s peculiarities.
Abigail Arnold is an intellectual little girl, just discovering her feminine powers. Abigail likes Danny but finds him a problem in management. She would appreciate a little more communication from him, but Danny is a tough sell.
Buddy Connolly is a good-hearted older boy who saves Danny from drowning, losing his orange-crate canoe in the process. He convinces Danny to help him build a replacement canoe, an activity that contributes greatly to Danny’s salvation.
Al Gallagher is the proprietor of the endlessly intriguing Al’s Swap Shop, a store that is more than it seems. He is a no-nonsense adult who speaks to kids as if they had some sense. Danny finds this a bit intimidating because it’s easier to fool adults who think kids are stupid.
The most mysterious person in Danny’s world is Donna, a beautiful young woman who appears occasionally and asks Danny frustrating questions. Danny thinks she might be touched in the head, but he can’t deny the warm feeling she creates in him.
Q: Do you tend to base your characters on real people or are they totally from your imagination?
In this book about half the characters are based on real people and half are the product of wishful thinking. As a boy, I was very much like Danny Ryan, and one of my childhood friends was much like Alfred Bagley. Many of the things the boys do together are things we did. The other primary characters are mostly representations of people I wish had been in my world. They are prompted by gracious motives. They extend their friendship to Danny because they see something fine in Danny in spite of his effort to keep it hidden. I’m pleased when readers ask me which characters are like the real people I knew as a child because that question suggests they find all the characters equally believable.
Q: Are you consciously aware of the plot before you begin a novel, or do you discover it as you write?
I start out knowing the theme, the setting, some of the characters, and some of the action. I knew Adventures in Nowhere would be about change, and I knew the main character would find out that change can bring relief but will invariably impose a loss at the same time. With that much in mind, I put the preconceived characters in the environment I imagine, and I start them off. Then one thing leads to another.
Q: Your book is set on the Hillsborough River near Tampa and in the community of Sulphur Springs. Can you tell us why you chose this setting?
I experienced this area in the 1950s, when it was on the verge of great change. Florida’s population was about to explode, and that explosion wiped out the places I knew. Except for a few parks and observation areas, the Hillsborough is pretty much blocked off from access by nonstop houses. Kids can’t play on its banks anymore, at least not where I did and certainly not with the freedom I felt. At one time Sulphur Springs was beautiful enough to be a tourist destination. The arcade in the Springs was thought to be the first indoor mall in the USA. It was featured in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! as a city under one roof. The place was in decline when I knew it, but it still held interest. Today, there is almost nothing left. The arcade was torn down to increase parking for a dog track and the big fresh water spring where we used to swim has been so polluted by storm water runoff that is unsafe for swimmers. I wanted to chronicle the environment I knew before it is lost to memory.
Q: Does the setting play a major part in the development of your story?
Yes. The area demonstrates the effects of change, which serves the book’s theme nicely; however, a theme is a poor thing unless it is developed through intriguing characters, plot, and setting. I think the setting of Adventures in Nowhere is interesting on its own, never mind the theme. The creeks, the river, and the peculiar community of Sulphur Springs offer a lot of opportunities for good storytelling.
Q: Open the book to page 69. What is happening?
On page 69 Danny and his mother are discussing his shoe situation. His mother worries about Danny’s tramping around in the woods barefoot; however, Danny has only two pairs of shoes. The nice ones from the Good Will store are too tight for anything other than mass on Sunday. Danny can stand them for that long but no longer. His tennis shoes have holes in the soles, making them no good for tramping. His mother suggests their usual temporary measure of cutting out some cardboard insoles, but Danny says the cardboard gets soggy in the woods. His mother sighs and says they will try to get new tennis shoes for school in the fall. Danny points out that the tops of the tennis shoes look fine and suggests they save some money and go with the cardboard for school. It is dry at school and the cardboard wears pretty well. Danny enjoys cutting out a good pair of cardboard inserts and is proud of how skillfully he can do it.
Q: Can you give us one of your best excerpts?
“It was hyacinth time. The Hillsborough River was so full of them that Danny could hardly spot a patch of open water. Hanna’s Whirl was like a green prairie dotted with fabulous purple flowers. People said the hyacinths were a disease to the river, but they were a picturesque disease. However, ten-year-old Danny was not thinking about the beauty of the flowers. His father had been crazy earlier that morning and had nearly killed him.
They had been riding along and, to all appearances, his father had been in a friendly frame of mind. Then something had happened. Danny had missed it, but some other driver may have made a little move with his car that no one else would have thought twice about. Whatever it was, Danny’s father suddenly got that twisted look on his face, and he had abruptly swung the car onto the unpaved shoulder of the road. In an instant, the Ryans’ old 1937 Dodge was careening along the uneven ground, parallel to the road. Inches from Danny’s door on the rider’s side was a low cement-block wall and beyond that the pauper’s cemetery, where they marked the graves by pounding a coffee can flat on a stake and hammering it into the ground.
Danny was frightened, but he knew that he must remain calm and keep looking down the road as if nothing unusual was going on. Ahead of him he could see the drivers on the roadway swerving as his father appeared unexpectedly on their right, only a foot from their fenders. Harold Ryan was threading a needle, but the clear area in front of the cemetery was running out, and ahead was a big oak tree blocking the way. There was no going to the right because of the wall, no going to the left because of the solid line of traffic, and no going ahead because of the tree. The only sane choice was to stop, but Mr. Ryan was not sane, so he had driven onward with leaden eyes, and Danny had held onto the door handle, silently watching the tree trunk come closer and closer.
Then a driver on the road next to them had jammed on his brakes, maybe out of shock at the sudden appearance of a car where none should be or because he was a quick thinker and saw a way to avert a crash. Anyway, a space opened up, and Danny’s dad jerked the car into it with no more emotion than he showed when killing a chicken. His actions might be wild, but his face always had that set, knowing expression, deeply sarcastic, as if he had recognized something meant to be hidden from him, something personal and demeaning.
So they were saved, though Danny did not show his relief any more than he had shown his terror at the prospect of death moments before. He just sat like a statue while the bad expression on his dad’s face slowly transformed into the amiable countenance that was the other side of the coin. By the time they had reached the Ryan house, Danny had allowed himself to put his elbow up on the car’s window frame. Things had gotten that loose.
Now, sitting by the river, Danny wondered if it wouldn’t have been better if they had smashed into the oak tree. Certainly, his mother and his two sisters would be better off. And Danny could not help thinking that he and his father might be better off as well. For his father, there would be no more of those tormented moments when he felt that someone had it in for him. For Danny, there would be an end to his vigilance and dread. But he tried to put such thoughts out of his head. They were probably sinful.”
Q: Thank you so much for this interview, John. We wish you much success!
I enjoyed myself. It’s nice when someone shows an interest in my work.