By Javacia Harris Bowser
Though TJ Beitelman is a published author and poet he often refers to himself as “a frustrated visual artist.” As soon as you begin to read his latest novel John the Revelator you will understand why. The book is packed with rich images that captivate you, pull you into the story, and haunt you in your dreams. Black Lawrence Press, Beitelman’s publisher, describes the book this way:
Part reluctant Tiresias, part locusts-and-honey outcast, teenaged John stumbles into the darker thickets of human insight—the high arts of vice and violence—and the small Alabama town he calls home will never be the same when he comes out the other side.
Beitelman is a native of Virginia and though he has lived in Alabama for 18 years, he admits that it has taken a while for the state to feel like home. John the Revelator, oddly enough, has helped.
“For that novel in particular the sense of place is so important,” Beitelman says. “It was a way for me to connect with this place and to put my emotional truth squarely in this place.”
Each scene of the book plays out in your mind like a movie reel. So I wasn’t surprised to learn that Beitelman first wrote John the Revelator as a screenplay.
The idea for the novel was born of a short story titled “Tiresias the Seer” that was published in 2004 in the New Orleans Review. First, Beitelman tried to expand the short story into a novel, but with no luck. Then he got another idea.
“I’ve always wanted to write a screen play and I also subscribed to the theory Alfred Hitchcock once said that films are more like short stories,” Beitelman says. “So I figured maybe I will go back to the original short story and try to make that into a screenplay.”
Beitelman completed the screenplay but then considered the reality of both the film and publishing industries. He knew it would be much harder to produce a screenplay than it would be to get a book published.
“I thought this might be an outline for the novel,” he says. “So I went back through the screenplay and fleshed it out into a novel and it worked. I wouldn’t recommend that process. It took a long time and it was very frustrating and I probably wouldn’t do it again, but it worked.”
Along with its rich imagery, John the Revelator also has a distinct lyrical quality that you would expect from Beitelman considering he has an MFA in poetry from the University of Alabama.
“Things like how it looks on the page is important to me and white space is important to me,” he says.
Furthermore, Beitelman says he typically writes his narratives in pieces. The “frustrated visual artist” says he would even describe John the Revelator as a collage.
“There are different voices in the book,” Beitelman says, “So it’s a collage of voice as well as narrative and images.”
As a high school student in Springfield, Virginia, Beitelman took all the visual arts classes he could as they were the only creative outlet at his school. Though, he admits he wasn’t the greatest artist in the class, he appreciated that his teacher treated all the students like artists and took their work seriously.
“I still think of my teacher and the things he said about visual arts,” Beitelman says. “He always used to say that if you’re going to draw a crooked line on purpose, make sure it’s really crooked. Otherwise people are going to assume you were trying to draw a straight line and you couldn’t do it. It’s surprising how applicable that is to all forms of art.”
TJ Beitelman teaches creative writing at the Alabama School of Fine Arts. And sometimes he rides a skateboard in the hallway.
Beitelman teaches creative writing at the Alabama School of Fine – a public institution in Birmingham, Alabama for gifted junior high and high school students. I teach English at the school and, in the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that Beitelman is one of my favorite colleagues.
Curious, I wanted to know how Beitelman found time to write while working such a demanding full-time job.
“Early on I felt like I had to have the Stephen King attitude towards it where you have to write a certain amount every day,” Beitelman admits. “I thought that was the only valid way to be a writer. I discovered I am the other kind of writer. There’s at least two. There’s that writer that sits down and invites the muse to come every day and it’s very compelling when you hear that, but I’ve been doing this for 20 years now and I have produced work and I am the type that writes in bursts. I need a burst to create raw material and then I tinker with it for a long time.”
For writers stressing about not writing daily, Beitelman says you should let yourself off the hook.
“I don’t worry myself over when I’m not writing anymore because I feel like the stuff that happens when I’m at the keyboard is only 10 percent of it,” he says. “Ninety percent is feeding the process.”
Beitelman says he feeds his writing process through reading and traveling and even doing things as simple as taking walks.
“Mostly it’s something more nebulous and vague than that,” Beitelman adds. “It’s a mindset of not turning off the impulse to the create something. I filter everything through that creative impulse. So there’s a permeable wall between the real world and the art you make from it.”
Javacia Harris Bowser is founding editor of See Jane Write Magazine.
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