Author and AU alum discusses how community is essential to book writing
Jonathan Koven explores the painful and enlightening aspects of growing up in his award-winning novella
When 2015 graduate Jonathan Koven turned in a short story for his creative writing class at American University, he didn’t necessarily expect it to turn into a book. Seven years after his graduation, that same short story is now an award-winning novella.
When Koven turned in that first draft, he said he wasn’t personally impressed by it.
“It was overflowing with teenage maudlin emotion. It didn't really even have any nuance but some people liked it, and they told me that it can be made into a full story,” Koven said.
With encouragement from his peers, he began to add on to his short story. Chapter by chapter, he began to build a book. The result?
His debut fiction novella “Below Torrential Hill,” winner of the Electric Eclectic novella prize.
“Below Torrentail Hill” is a coming of age novel that carefully blends surrealism and poetic metaphor to viscerally depict the hardest aspects of the transition to adulthood, particularly when dealing with unresolved trauma.
The novel follows Tristen, an unreliable narrator that’s easily comparable to Holden Caulfield of “Catcher in the Rye” as he struggles to reconcile the love he believes he is owed by his friends and family with the love they are able to offer him.
“Throughout the book, all of the characters yearn for that break from what they've known for all their lives, whether it's a break from reality or a break from themselves,” Koven said.
Central to the story is Tristen’s hope that those he loves are the key to that break, and his anger when they fail to offer it.
“What Tristen needs in that moment is to be reminded that sometimes you get love after you forgive, and sometimes you need to forgive yourself to love,” Koven said.
It is the raw way in which Koven is able to channel complicated feelings that make “Below Torrential Hill” such a successful novel. Balanced with his heavily lyrical and metaphor laden writing, Koven’s aptitude in poetry is evident: his debut book was a collection of poems titled “Palm Lines.”
“I just wanted to do something that I would have read myself, and I'm really into poetic novels,” Koven said.
While “Below Torrential Hill” has found success, Koven said the process of writing it was not an easy one. Koven attempted to go through the traditional process of finding an agent to then send the book to a publisher, but had little luck. He estimates that he sent out around 80 queries which did garner a few manuscript requests, but given the artistic and abstract nature of “Bellow Torrential Hill,” the question of commercial success often meant rejection.
Koven then took matters into his own hands, and began submitting to small publishers directly.
Finally, Koven found success when “Below Torrential Hill” won the Electric Eclectic prize, which includes free publication of the winning title.
“I [also] think that friendships, and just having an encouraging group to support you is super important. Otherwise, I would have not believed in my own work, you know?” Koven said of his friends and wife, who he met at AU..
Even the cover artwork on the book comes from within the community, as it was provided by Don Kimes, an art professor at AU.
For those still at AU and looking to follow in his footsteps, Koven reminds young authors that believing in yourself is just as vital as having a good community.
“Believe in your work. Keep growing, accept that you're going to get it wrong, until you get it right,” Koven said.