Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Discussion questions about Journeyman

 Mary Lib, whose book club read my novel Journeyman (2020), asked if I had any discussion questions about it. I wish I had thought to include some at the end of the book. So, I've whipped some up and here they are. 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS ABOUT JOURNEYMAN

It has been said that the friendship between Pate and Stan “is a lively, steady stream running throughout the book. Both are complex, vulnerable, imperfect human beings who make you ache with their youthful desire to find a meaningful direction in their lives and to create a better, more just world.”

 

What are some of Pate’s strengths and weaknesses as a character? Same question for Stan. How do they try to find a meaningful direction in their lives? How is this different than they were brought up to believe?

 

Journeyman is a story told against the backdrop of a war that shaped a generation of Americans. What made the Vietnam era such a powerful, heady, mind-bending time? What are some ways this period affects the story in Journeyman? Why did public opinion about Vietnam shift around the time Pate was to be inducted into the military? What is Pate’s rationale for refusing to serve?

 

While Pate has recently avoided being drafted, Stan, equally adrift, has done his time in the service. How do these seemingly opposite individuals find common ground and friendship?

The period of the novel has been referred to as “a time, not unlike our own, when the energy and possibilities of youth rub up against the complicated realities of a country divided by racial mistrust, generational misunderstanding, political fractiousness, and domestic and international instability.” Unpack this complex sentence. Is it true? Why? Agree or disagree: The chaos and hope and heartbreak of the Vietnam War era laid the foundation for the world we’re living in now

 

According to Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame member and New York Times best-selling novelist Sena Jeter Naslund, Journeyman “tells a timeless tale of youth striving to define not only itself but the world it inhabits. Who lives and who dies and why? What new and old values to reject or embrace—and at what point in the journey?” Discuss.

 

Journeyman has been called “a moving and provocative story of initiation.” In what sense are Pate and Stan initiates? How does their journey help them achieve adulthood? Discuss.

 

The late Ed McClanahan, another member of the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame, was also part of the San Francisco hippie scene in the late 1960s. Of Journeyman, Ed wrote: Two intrepid young men set out from Kentucky to retrace the westward peregrinations of Kerouac and Cassady, twenty years after the fact, with tragic results for one and life-changing consequences for the other. Journeyman is the survivor’s stirring, multi-layered account of their travels and travails, interwoven with recollections of the life he left behind.”

 

Who was Jack Kerouac? What was his most famous novel? Who was Neil Cassady? How was he connected to Kerouac? What do their lives have to do with Pate and Stan’s long meandering journey to San Francisco?

 

Journeyman immerses the reader into the America of 1970-71, with a quixotic hitchhiking pilgrimage from Louisville to a commune at its narrative center. What makes it quixotic? What makes it a pilgrimage? Why do the characters hitchhike? Why do they want to go to San Francisco? Why are they interested in the commune? How does that work out?

 

A trek on foot, by plane, train, or automobile is always a journey of self-discovery. Journeyman is part of a grand tradition of travelers-seekers: Odysseus wanders throughout the world, seemingly unable to return home to his wife and son. Is it a longing for adventure that keeps him away? Chaucer invents a mixed set of travelers. Our Journeymen admire Ken Kesey, a writer and counterculture hero. He and his followers, the Merry Pranksters, are particularly noted for the lengthy, cross-country road trip they took in the summer of 1964.

 

Name Ken Kesey’s two most famous novels. What nonfiction book tells the story of Kesey and the Pranksters? What is unusual about the way that story is told?

Pate and Stan have romanticized the Merry Pranksters, as they like the idea of being hippies and look forward to communal living with the sharing of food and love. They draw comfort from the notion of turning on, tuning in, and dropping out. How do their dreams work out?

 

Alcohol, marijuana, and psychedelic drugs play a huge role in the period of the story. Discuss Pate and Stan’s attitudes and behavior regarding these drugs. Evaluate their impact on the characters’ lives. In the end, are Pate and Stan better or worse off for having experimented with drugs? 

 

Pate and Stan share the restlessness of many wanderers/seekers. Perhaps Journeyman suggests, ultimately, that salvation lies in the redemptive creativity of our own hands. Agree/disagree/discuss. 

 

A journeyman in earlier lingo was a tradesman who was no longer an apprentice but not yet a master of his trade. Does this accurately describe Pate and Stan? Why or why not?

 

When Pate and Stan set out on the road to Haight-Ashbury in June 1971, they know that the Summer of Love took place in 1967, but surely, four years later, some of those 100,000 flower children are still there, searching for a new life, or hiding from an old one. It sounds like the perfect solution for the atmosphere of uncertainty they face during the horror of the Vietnam War. “King and both Kennedys are dead, Nixon’s in the White House, and the Beatles have broken up, anything and nothing seems possible.”

 

Pate and Stan are great readers. Pate, the teacher, likes Kurt Vonnegut. Stan also enjoys deep discussions, favoring the spiritual nature of the recluse of Walden Pond. He notes, “Thoreau believed we can’t begin to understand ourselves until we’re lost.” Agree/disagree/discuss.

 

Stan seems to aim toward dangerous paths, perhaps his way to gain self-awareness. What else do these young, bearded men have in common, and why do they burn bridges in Louisville to travel 2,000 miles?

 

What jobs do Pate Merwin and Stan Hicks have before they head westward? Why are they willing to give them up for such an uncertain adventure?

 

In this story, describe the stress of teaching in a school system that cannot meet the needs of difficult to control students, who can barely read. How does this contribute to Pate’s desire to join his friend and leave it all behind?

 

Stan flounders from job to job and wanders from one casual sex partner to another. He searches for reasons to live. How does he do this? To what degree is he successful?

 

Soon Pate has a live-in girlfriend, Deborah Johnson, an African American bank teller and single parent, but they have difficulties as a couple, including that he hasn’t sufficient income to start family life, and isn’t ready to be a father to her son. Describe the roles played by Deborah, her young son Donald, and her father.

 

Pate and Stan meet various people throughout their journey. Describe some of these minor characters and their significance. Include the sleepy truck driver they abandon, the rednecks who threaten them in a Kansas diner, and the traveling salesman whose advice is good even though he is a bore.

 

Several other characters play important supporting parts in the story. In Denver, for example, Pate and Stan stay with Pate’s old school mate Matthew Duncan, an acting student, and his wife Rebecca, who is putting him through grad school. Memories sometimes sweeten the present: one of them remembers the smell of a woman’s clean hair; the other, the hint of coconut-scented suntan lotion that women smear on each other. Discuss the importance of sensory impressions in their shared experiences.

 

Describe the role played by Nick and Iris Paraprosdokian, an older couple driving a psychedelic camper who pick up Pate and Stan as passengers during a fierce mountain storm. What, if anything, do Pate and Stan learn from them?

 

Describe the role of Johona, a young Ute woman with whom Pate shares a deeply meaningful experience. Her medicine man relative also performs a healing ceremony for Stan at an isolated cliff dwelling ruin in the desert. How significant is this interlude in their journey? Why does Pate make the choice he does?

 

Pate notices and appreciates the enhanced beauty of the west. It seems to affect his feelings not only about nature but also God. “As the sharp-edged mountains slowly fade and the purple velvet sky turns gray, we stroll through the sagebrush.” … “The light has changed. Now the desert’s warm browns, golden corals, and muted reds appear even more vivid. Whatever the cause—an aesthetically minded God or a jubilant and random Nature—it’s stunningly magnificent.” Discuss.

 

Describe the role of Willow, a free-spirited macramé artist, who invites Pate and Stan to stay in her Haigh Ashbury commune. What do the two adventurers learn about free love and their own complex individual needs?

 

Discuss life in the commune. How is it different than Pate and Stan anticipated? Were you surprised?  How do you feel about Leland and the other commune members and their activities?

 

By alternating chapters that begin in present-tense as the story opens, then switching to past-tense with an account of eight months earlier, the back stories catch up to the present when the guys reach San Francisco. How are these back stories significant? What do they tell us about the main characters? Why do you think the author chose to tell the story in this way?

 

 

A BRIEF SELF-INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR

 

Where do you get your ideas? What was the inspiration for this story?

What is the significance of the title? How do you come up with your titles?

 

In 1971, I hitchhiked across the country with a friend, an experience which inspired Journeyman. I also taught in an inner-city school that year, which helped to inspire the other part of the story. The title in this case refers to the hitchhiking trip out West. It also alludes to the protagonist’s level of life experience (a journeyman in earlier lingo was a tradesman who was no longer an apprentice but not yet a master of his trade.) Of course, it is also a pun. My late friend Joe Peacock suggested “Journeyman” for this title. I often look to poetry for inspiration about titles.

 

What, in your opinion, are the most important elements of good writing? What do you think makes a good story?

 

I recently came across the following while re-reading an old Travis McGee novel by John D. MacDonald. His answer is much better than mine: “What I want in writing. First, there has to be a strong sense of story. I want to be intrigued by wondering what is going to happen next. I want the people I read about to be in difficulties—emotional, moral, spiritual, whatever, and I want to live with them while they’re finding their way out of these difficulties. Secondly, I want the writer to make me suspend my disbelief. I want to be in some other place and scene of the writer’s devising. Next, I want him to have a hint of magic in his prose style, a bit of unobtrusive poetry. I want to have words and phrases really sing. And I want an attitude of wryness, realism, the sense of inevitability. (I also want the writer to) put in a little quirk, a little twist that will be so unexpected that you read it with a sense of glee, a sense of joy because of its aptness even though it may be a very dire and bloody part of the book. So, I want story, wit, music, wryness, color, and a sense of reality in what I read, and I try to get it in what I write.

 

Is there lots to do before you dive in and start writing the story? What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book? Where do you get your information or ideas for your books? Do you have a library membership?

 

Before writing the narrative, I try to find out anything and everything I can about setting, real life events and people connected to the story, and all manner of technical information. Sometimes it takes a couple of months, sometimes less. But that is only the beginning. While writing the narrative, I am constantly going online to learn more about the subject of the book. Yes, I have a library card which I use all the time. And Mr. Google and Mr. Wikipedia are two of my best friends.

 

How much ‘world building’ takes place before you start writing? Journeyman is set in both Kentucky and the West. Why did you choose this as the setting?

 

My mentors at Spalding U. placed great emphasis on creating a strong sense of place. It was an eye-opening discovery for me that changed my fiction dramatically. Basically, when the reader parachutes into the novel, it is the writer’s job to provide him or her with a road map to understand where they are and what it’s like there. Imagine the difference between a desert setting and a frozen mountain range setting. Or New York City v. Hopkinsville, Kentucky.

 

What comes first, the plot or characters? How do you develop them? How do you select the names of your characters?

 

This is a chicken-or-egg question to me. It can, and has been, either one. If I hear an anecdote or of an incident that I find interesting, I’ll make a note of it and try to explore its fictional potential. Same thing with people. Storytelling is all about details—the right details—and knowing what to leave out, like a sculptor discovering the form he seeks inside the block of marble. It’s generally more about sweat than talk. As for names, I look everywhere—lists of popular names for babies are good. Names in obituaries—some of which can be combined, mixed and matched—are another good source. I listen for good names and am always on the lookout for them.

 

How important is autobiography in your books? What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters? What are the ethics of writing about historical figures? What did you edit out of this book?

All fictional characters are composites of real and invented people, even when we write about ourselves. Liability laws force writers to be careful about character defamation. But fiction writers all use the canvas of their lives and experiences to create characters. It is almost impossible not to do so, at least for me. The chief advantage of writing autobiographically is that I know everything about the character and thus can be very authentic in my portrayal; the chief disadvantage is that I may limit myself unnecessarily to the facts rather than creating someone or something new and different.

 

What scenes are the hardest for you to write?

 

Sex scenes. I am never sure how much is too much or too little. Psychologists tell us that our lizard brain—the part in charge of fight or flight, feeding, and fornication—is still very much alive in our subconscious and often affects our behavior more than we realize. That’s why I regularly share my work-in-progress with women—so they can show me where I am screwing up. I am also keenly aware of feminism’s pervasive influence. All I can do is try to be honest about how I portray all my characters.

 

What is your writing process like?

 

Since 2004 when I retired from teaching, I’ve been writing from after breakfast until late afternoon—somewhere between four and six hours usually. That’s every day, seven days a week. The tools of my trade—my sword and my pen, as Pete Townsend would say—are the word processor and the internet. My writing space, which I love, is in a little room (maybe twelve by sixteen) off the parlor, with two windows and two doors. Getting it right is the hardest part of the trade and rewriting is everything.

 

How many books have you written?

 

Journeyman, my debut novel, was published in 2020. Hotwalker, the first in a mystery series about Louisville private investigator Jim Guthrie, came out in 2021. The second Guthrie novel is a work-in-progress. I have numerous other fiction projects in various stages of completion, both mystery and literary.

 

Where can readers find out more about you and your books?

 

<www.RickNeumayer.com> is the best place to contact me or find out more about my books. I am also on Facebook and always delighted to interact with my readers.

 

 

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