Joel and I first met (I believe) in Clean Indie Reads where he later became one of the first recipients of the CIR Strong Award. Somewhere along the line, I happened to read one of his books and was absolutely shocked by how much I loved it because the cover had been flamboyantly unassuming. We got to talking about it, and I became a regular beta reader for him, which is a great deal for me because I get a sneak peek at upcoming releases. I confess I’m cheating a little here with Joel’s interview in that he has a new book coming out now. Usually my interviews cover just the person, not a specific book, but I found A Still, Small Voice indicative of his style in general (and since it’s my website and I can do what I want to) and felt like I could make this work as both a book launch effort and an introduction to a very cool writerly sort of person.
So here you go… Joel D Canfield, creator of the best author newsletter you could ever subscribe to, musician, foodie, eclectic nerd, and all-round nice guy.
LIA: A Still, Small Voice is a little tricky to pigeon-hole into one genre, just as most of your books are. What flavors are mixing here, and what sorts of readers would tend to enjoy it?
JOEL: The simplest label would be light mystery. As my readers know, my mysteries are often not very mysterious. They are not about puzzles, they are about how people react to complicated situations. If you’re looking for surprising answers to a puzzle, like Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie, you will not find those in my books. My dream is that fans of Liane Moriarty will see similarities: regular people caught up in morally complicated situations hinging on something surprising.
LIA: I’ll agree that they are not traditional mysteries with dead bodies, etc., but there is definitely a strong element of intrigue in your books. I spend a goodly amount of time trying to untangle the knots of motives and actions, all while moments of suspense and humor jostle me around. It’s hard enough to classify your books in a paragraph. What if you had to tweet the ad for your book in 140 characters or fewer? What might that say?
JOEL: Phil’s past endangers his future. Also kidnapping & a stolen painting & romance, maybe. Oh, & a gun (go Chekhov!)
LIA: Okay, so Phil’s past is an issue. I’ve read a couple of books with him now, and I love him as a main character. Talk to us about him.
JOEL: Phil Brennan, who we first met in A Long, Hard Look, desperately needs connections with other people because his own family life was so messed up. Somewhere along the line, he learned that helping others built those connections. His generosity, which he seems completely unaware of, has created a small but powerful network of trusted friends. That’s a good thing because in this book, he seems oblivious to the mistake of measuring others by his own preconceptions and his network saves him.
LIA: Your books always feature characters with several layers of depth–no cartoon characters here, even if they might seem so at first glance. What do you do to get inside of their heads?
JOEL: This made me laugh. My characters, my writing in general, is an attempt to make sense of the layers of noise in my own head. One of the few things which takes virtually no effort in my writing is creating complex characters. I made the decision long ago to write main characters I would be friends with. It makes it easier to imagine characters with a broad range of interests and some depth to their personality. Putting black-and-white thinkers in morally ambiguous situations is a good writing trick to force me to dig into those layers of personality. Figuring out how someone like Phil faces those challenges forces me to see who he really is and who he isn’t.
LIA: Well I, for one, would totally want to be friends with Phil. His narrative voice has this charming snark about him. Are you making an effort to be witty, or does it come naturally? Either way, what has influenced your sense of humor?
JOEL: The narrative voice in my books is me dialing it back to what some might consider socially acceptable levels. I have come to detest sarcasm, but a childhood filled with dry Midwestern wit combined with an inability to suffer fools gladly sometimes comes out sharper than I mean it to. I’ve been advised by more than one respected professional to dial Phil back by about 10%. What you read in my books is me trying very hard to do that.
LIA: What does the title A Still, Small Voice mean in terms of the story?
JOEL: I once heard the conscience described as a still, small voice that makes you feel still smaller. One event in this book will be on Phil’s conscience for the rest of his life. The plot shows how Phil deals with people from his past and present who don’t seem to listen to that still, small voice.
LIA: A Still, Small Voice, like your other works, contains some powerful insights into human nature and need. Do you have a background or special interest in psychology?
JOEL: No one has time for the complete answer to that question. But I will share that my study of marketing for small businesses led to ongoing research into psychology and brain science, which crossed over into a study of writer’s resistance and how to combat it. My brain is my most important tool, and since I wasn’t issued a user’s manual, I’ve spent much of my life attempting to compose one of my own.
LIA: Who is your favorite side character in A Still, Small Voice and why?
JOEL: Roland Everett is the type of outwardly cultured, inwardly rebellious, elderly gentleman I hope I become. It’s possible his role as Phil’s mentor may grow in the future. But since you asked who’s my favorite side character, Roland’s daughter, Tammy, is awfully good-looking.
LIA: What other hobbies and talents do you pursue? Do they ever show up in your writing?
JOEL: I am very good at eating. This shows up often in my books. In fact, the only one-star review I have ever received at Amazon called the first Phil Brennan book a restaurant review instead of a mystery. I do all the cooking at home and, though I have no professional training, I learn what I can and enjoy making tasty, nutritious meals with limited resources.
I started writing music a decade ago and have written something over 150 songs. Most of them are jazzed-up country rock. Music makes its way into my stories quite a bit but so far there’s only one musician, who shows up in That She Is Made of Truth. Nothing directly about songwriting. I think the next Jesse Donovan book might go there.
We’ve been able to travel a bit. My Irish mysteries are a direct result of our time in Ireland.
LIA: One of the things I enjoy most about your books, and that keeps me flipping digital pages well into the night is that you have a great way of both opening and closing chapters with intriguing lines. What is your favorite opening line to any of the chapters in this book, and what is your favorite closing line? (Unless it provides a spoiler, of course.)
JOEL: Chapter 16 begins, “To recap: nothing was happening. I thought something should happen. I stirred the pot. Things happened.” Chapter 21 ends, “And so I became, if only temporarily, an owner of a gun I’d never shoot, but one I’d never forget.”