Interview with Author Jamie Beckett

Jamie Beckett is the author of the novel, Burritos and Gasoline, and a non-fiction collection of  columns written for General Aviation News, known as, The Loose Cannon View. He is also a musician, a pilot, and a politician. Full disclosure: Jamie is a long-time friend who I
met during the early 1980s when he played bass guitar in a fabulous band called The Broken Hearts. Their album, Want One?, is available through iTunes.

What was your inspiration for Burritos and Gasoline? How did you come up with the idea?

Burritos and Gasoline came together as an idea in two parts, frankly. The first has to do with the fact that I live in a small, southern city that has no book store. Now understand, this was in the days before iPads, Nooks, and ebooks. The only place I could buy a book was at the supermarket. So I was browsing the aisle one night and realized that every single book they had was a novel that revolved around a murder.

I’ll grant you that I may not be the brightest guy on the block, but I don’t know too many people who have been personally affected by a murder. So I began to wonder about a story that might resonate with me a little more personally – and the idea of a failed musician who has issues with making close emotional connections with others became appealing over the course of a couple months.

The other aspect had to do with the simplicity of the story. As odd as it may sound, I had spent two-years working on a very intricate novel about domestic terrorists who hijack five airplanes in different cities, on the same day, in order to shut down the airspace over the United States. Then 9/11 happened. It would have been disrespectful to publish that book, so I put it away and started casting about for something else to write about. Burritos and Gasoline is the result of both those experiences.

The setting is a key part of any novel. Your description of the setting resonated with me. Having grown up in that region, I thought you nailed it. Why did you choose that setting and what was its significance to the story?

To be perfectly honest, I needed a starting point that can be seen as either bleak and depressing, or bright and filled with potential. Central
Connecticut fills that bill, and so it became the starting point for the story. Basically, Frank is having a crisis of perception. He has made such a career out of avoiding emotional attachments, he has completely disassociated himself from the world around him. It wouldn’t matter if he was in Maui, or Beverly Hills, Frank would be depressed and distraught. But I needed a starting point where his self destructive nature wouldn’t be incredibly obvious at first. The reader has to feel drawn in to Frank’s point of view and recognize on their own that the issue is Frank, not his surroundings. So East Hartford, Manchester, and Hartford, Connecticut became Franks stomping grounds – at least for the early portion of the story.

In the book, there are flashbacks to Frank’s experiences growing up in East Hartford. How did you draw on your own experiences in creating the flashback scenes?

My closest friend from the time I was three until I was in the seventh grade, was a kid named Mike. He lived in the house that backed up to
mine in our suburban neighborhood. That was in East Hartford, Connecticut. I lived on O’Connell Drive, and he lived on Burke Street. The characters of Frank and Danny are completely independent of Mike and me. There’s no similarity to our relationship at all. But the neighborhood,
and the proximity to each other’s homes is how I remember the neighborhood when I look back on it.

There is one exception to that, however. The character of Danny’s father is based on a family that lived down the street from us for several
years. The father had a drinking problem, and would disappear into his bedroom after dinner on a surprisingly regular basis. His wife would tell us that he wasn’t feeling well and had gone to bed, but his son, who was a friend of mine, let us in on the real cause of his dad’s tendency to hibernate. Like Danny, he truly loved his dad and clearly had difficulty with the situation that he found himself in.

They moved away before high school, and so did my family, so I have no idea how all that worked out in real life. The situation seemed appropriate to the story of Frank and Danny, though. So I used it.

The theme of Burritos and Gasoline focuses on the simple life lessons Danny shared with Frank on the long drive from East Hartford to Gainesville, Florida. Did you start out your story with that theme in mind or did it develop organically as you got into the story?

The life lessons actually started after a conversation I had with an old friend, who’s mentioned in the book, actually. Michael Mazzarella is a
musician and a good friend of mine from way back. We were talking one night about the meaning of songs, or at least about what people perceive to be the real meaning of their favorite songs. I made the point to Michael that I made in the book, that songs mean whatever the listener thinks they mean. The writer’s perspective is no longer pertinent to the experience of hearing the song once it goes out into the public. As I rolled that idea around in my mind a bit I began to reflect on the fact that almost all the really big problems we face in life have very simple, straight-forward solutions. So I incorporated that concept into the story. Because let’s face it, Franks got some issues to work on. At least early on he does.

How long did it take you to finish Burritos and Gasoline? How much editing/rewriting did you do?

That’s a really good question, and a tough one, too. It took something like three months to write the book. And when I finished it I put it away in a desk drawer for two weeks, so that I could look at it with a fresh perspective, or at least a fresher perspective before I started looking for a publisher. I’ve got to tell you, I was really excited about having finished the story, because it really had become an important part of my
life – and you really do start to think of the characters as real people who you have to help find their way to a resolution. So it was a huge shock when I pulled the book out and started reading it, only to realize it was a piece of crap. It was way too long, and it included characters who were entertaining, and colorful, but totally superfluous to the story. So I re-wrote the book, and I thought it got a bit better. It was shorter, and more to the point. So I re-wrote it again, and I liked it even more. That set me off on the editing process, rather than another complete re-write, and I whittled away at the story for a couple more months.

One person I really have to be openly thankful of is Joni Fisher. She’s a writer who I met by happenstance, and she was good enough to read chapters as I finished them. We’d meet at the local coffee shop, and I’d hand off a new chapter, while she’d return a previous one. Her willingness to walk down that very tedious road of reading, re-reading, writing, editing, and re-reading again was such a massive help to me. Burritos and Gasoline would certainly be a much less worthwhile story if not for the very significant contributions of Joni Fisher.

What were the biggest lessons you learned from your experiences writing Burritos and Gasoline?

I write a lot of non-fiction. And I like writing non-fiction, I always have. But I didn’t realize how much of yourself you can put into a story if you
use fiction as a way of weaving your value system, your sense of ethics, and your hopes for humanity into a story that you control entirely. As peculiar as it may seem, the author really does control the entire universe for those characters. The laws of physics only apply if you let them. People live or die, succeed or starve, all based on your sense of where the story needs to go in order to be told in the way that it should be.

I had no idea that I would enjoy writing fiction so much. But I do, and I’m pleased to find that I’m honestly proud of the story, the characters, and what Burritos and Gasoline has done for me, personally and professionally.

What was the most satisfying part of writing your novel?

You’ll probably think this is a little weird. But the most satisfaction I’ve gotten as a result of writing Burritos and Gasoline resulted from an
e-mail I received from a reader. A woman wrote to tell me how much she had enjoyed the story. But she was very honest in letting me know that she had completely misunderstood what was happening for the first half of the book. She thought she knew where I was going, and she thought she was enjoying the story–and then she realized that she had taken a wrong turn in her interpretation of the story and it opened up a whole new perspective on the story for her.

I thought that was the greatest compliment I could ever get as a writer. I still think so, too. She was so happy to have read a novel that had
completely faked her out, even when she was well into the story and thought she knew exactly what was going on. I can’t go into more detail or it
might ruin one of the twists in the story for someone else. But that was absolutely the most satisfying aspect of publishing the book. Knowing that
readers were really enjoying it, and truly being taken by surprise – that made me feel pretty darned good. It still does, too. I guess I have enough of an ego to be able to admit that I enjoy that part of the job quite a bit.

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