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An Interview with Justin Courter



The editors of Owl Canyon Press sit down this month to talk to Justin Courter, whose novel The Heart of It All was recently awarded a 2015 Gold Medal Independent Publisher Book Awards winner in Contemporary Fiction.

The title of your book is taken from an early Ohio state motto. What made you choose the motto, and how would you describe its significance to the novel?


JC: I chose The Heart of It All for two reasons that are related to each other. The main character, John, is experiencing crises of the heart that have to do with his ex-girlfriend, Carla, and his grandmother, Beatrice. Carla left him, and years later John still has not gotten over it or figured out how to move on emotionally. At the beginning of the novel, he has an inkling of why she left him, but the full force of her motivation hits him toward the end of it—Carla sold out. She gave up her free-spirited exploration of the world for materialistic reasons.

Beatrice, who, because of Alzheimer’s, is unintentionally leaving John now, was the only adult in his family who was kind to him when he was growing up. Beatrice lives on a small farm where, when she was younger, she grew most of her family’s food. She is connected to the land, which is the second reason for the use of the state motto. The next generation, represented by Beatrice’s daughter, Maylene, is breaking that connection to the land. Maylene is selling the farm to a company she knows is going to turn it into an office park.  

So, due to greed and materialism, John’s heart is broken and the heartland is destroyed—the depiction of which is really funny, I promise!


One of the major themes of the novel reflects the desire for individual expression through art. The main character, John Ritter, is a graffiti artist, and his grandmother is a children’s book illustrator. Did you choose to emphasize the contrast between these two styles of art , and if so, what does it tell us about the relationship between the two characters?

JC: Thank you for another good question. Yes, John’s graffiti and Beatrice’s illustrations are worlds apart. John’s graffiti is simple, antagonistic, protest—defacing billboards with hastily scrawled, occasionally environmental messages. It’s not artistic at all. Beatrice’s series of children’s books, chronicling the exploits of the mischievous Pixies—loosely on Palmer Cox’s Brownies—are entertaining and playful. John admires Beatrice to point of hero worship, and would like to make something similar to her books—something that grows out of love, generosity and patient application of disciplined craftsmanship. But at this point in his life, all he is really capable of is blurting his outrage.


The Heart of It All also explores issues of aging and what happens when a loved one begins to experience a loss of mental and physical capabilities. Although John assumes responsibility for his grandmother, he does so in a childlike way. How would you describe the effects of John’s relationship with his grandmother to his ability or inability to grow up?


JC: John’s relationship with Beatrice will help him grow up in the long run. The novel only spans a few months of John’s life. He has been away from Ohio and his grandmother for a number of years, during which he idealized a bucolic, freewheeling past in which Beatrice played a central role. This nostalgic mindset enabled him to delay his own maturity. And when he returns to her farm, he wants to go back to being the irresponsible child she doted on, and this interferes with his ability to take care of her.

Emotionally, John is very attuned to Beatrice and has an intuitive understanding of how to care for someone with Alzheimer’s. He employs unconventional tactics that actually work in situations that upset Beatrice. He has a similar knack with children, which he demonstrates with Carla’s son at the end of the book. This is all because he deeply values spontaneity and creativity and is completely flexible and patient with people who are making their own kind of sense that contradicts common sense, partly because common sense is his enemy anyway.

But John is unreliable and forgetful. He hasn’t developed the persistence and the work ethic that will enable him to be the kind of person he wants to be—an artist and, likely, a family man. At the end of the novel we see him beginning to understand this, partly due to the example of Beatrice’s life.


I believe that The Heart of It All is your third book. Could you talk a little about your progress as a writer, and how you think your prose has changed over time?


JC: The Heart of It All was the fourth novel I wrote -- I wrote it in 2001. It is the second novel I've gotten published. I've also published a collection of prose poems.

As far as my progress as a writer, I like to think that I've been getting better over the years. I've read a lot of fiction, which is the only really useful guide to writing it. Plotting is always the most difficult part of the process, and I think I have improved at that. The first novel I ever wrote, which was a practice novel I would never publish, I had almost no plot at all and made it up as I went along. I learned the hard way that when you do that in a long form you are basically sailing around without a chart or a compass and are not going to end up with a book that will sustain a reader's interest.

My prose changes with every book, because I want a style that fits the subject matter. So it depends what subject matter I happen to be interested in at the point in my life and what kind of narrator I want to tell the story. I look at each new story or novel as a kind of experiment in which I'm combining different elements -- voice, characters, place, a subject I've researched a bit (such as Alzheimer's, in The Heart of It All) and a plot -- and trying to make the piece different from others I've written. The best writing advice I know is Seymour's to Buddy in Salinger's Seymour: An Introduction, when he tells Buddy to think about what kind of story he'd most like to read, then sit down and write the thing himself. That's what I try to do every time.