Monday, August 15, 2016

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY: J. J. Knights, Author

J. J. Knights, Author
BENJAMIN'S FIELD Trilogy
J. J. Knights’ novel, the BENJAMIN'S FIELD Trilogy, tracks three generations of a family in the U.S. from WWI through WWII.  Knights has taken care to assure historical accuracy and believes that fiction can help educate if entertaining and accurate. Reviewers praise the “themes of loyalty, personal liberty as it relates to society’s demands, religious prejudice, racism, intolerance, and the overwhelming need for humans to forgive one another.”

A retired FBI Special Agent, Knights is currently working on his next novel based on actual events occurring in the American Civil War. When he’s not writing, he participates in Team Rubicon, an organization that provides disaster relief services. He loves spending time in Canada, volunteering his photography services, and beekeeping. And he enjoys chasing his 18-month old granddaughter around.

Q: In what genre would you place your BENJAMIN'S FIELD Trilogy? Literary fiction? Historical fiction? Why?

J. J. Knights: The BENJAMIN'S FIELD Trilogy is definitely historical fiction. 

The story is a saga covering three generations from World War I to World War II and beyond.

My research was painstaking and involved not only online sources, but actual books.  In addition to life’s lessons the story teaches, I want my characters to bring the historical events that shaped the 20th century alive for my readers. 

We live in a much more permissive society today than existed one hundred years ago.  Do young people today understand what it was like for an unwed mother back then?  How about for a child born with a disability?  What about the effects of organized religion or the importance of fraternal societies?

Does anyone remember the Golden Age of Aviation and how every child dreamt of becoming an aviator?  Do today’s young people know what an aviatrix is without looking it up on their smart phones?

Seven decades before 9/11 there was Pearl Harbor.  Like the attacks on 9/11, Pearl Harbor galvanized the American people.  Unlike 9/11, that galvanization wasn’t short-lived and helped bring us to victory.

How many people know an organization of civilian pilots sunk at least one German U-Boat during WWII or that such an organization even existed?

Well-written and accurately researched historical fiction has an important role to play in education.

Q: Reviewers say about the trilogy that “once the plot catches you it won't let you go” and that the series is “enormously entertaining and instructive.” How do you manage to entertain and also instruct readers?

J. J. Knights: To instruct seriously and well, one must be a bit of an entertainer.  If not, you will lose your audience, be they university students, student pilots, or readers who can easily put your book down and pick up someone else’s.

Imagine sitting in church or some other place of worship, a university classroom or some similar place.  If the priest, minister, rabbi, professor  or whomever simply stands there and drones on, you’ll fall asleep.  On the other hand, if he or she moves about in front of you and injects drama and humor into the sermon, they’ve got you.  We’ve all had boring teachers.

In the case of writing a story like BENJAMIN’S FIELD,  I used intensely emotional scenes and drama tempered with comic relief to keep the reader engaged, but not overwhelmed.  Humor is necessary to relieve the pressure created by the drama and emotion.  You don’t want the reader to feel bludgeoned.

In Book One, RESCUE, Benjamin, the protagonist, and the priest Templeman, have issues to resolve, so I put them in a very emotional, soul-baring encounter.  The pressure builds until Benjamin’s hired hand, Hiram, appears unexpectedly with a one-liner that will cause the reader to smile or laugh.

The reader must also be able to relate to what the character is experiencing.  That’s why I put the characters in highly charged situations that we’ve all experienced or at lease can understand.

For instance, throughout history, there have always been young men who terrified their parents by saying, “The country is at war. I’m joining the army.” It’s been said in different languages and accents, but it’s been said since humans have walked the earth. My brother and I did it to my parents and my son did it to my wife and I.  Even if it hasn’t happened to you, you can still relate to it. 

This, and much more, happens in the story.

Q: Your trilogy covers much of the 20th century. What kind of historical research did you do? How important is historical accuracy to credibility? Were you able to use history to support or amplify your plot and themes?

J. J. Knights: Since BENJAMIN’S FIELD is a historical novel, I did a great deal of research.  The Internet has made this chore much easier and economical (no need to travel to distant libraries, etc.), so I did much of the research online.  However, I also used real books.  Some I borrowed.  Some I purchased.  Actually, I enjoyed the research and found it very educational even if much of what I found didn’t make it into the story. 

I also spoke with subject matter experts, among them priests, a Catholic sister, an expert on canon law, a Freemason, a retired orthopaedic surgeon, a rabbi, a representative of Shriners Hospitals for Children, and an expert on the history of rail travel in western Pennsylvania.  I even took advantage of my own family genealogist and put my great, great grandfather, a Canadian sea captain, in the story, though I changed his role and place in the historical timeline.  I thanked all of them in the Acknowledgements.

I was very careful to make the story as historically accurate as possible, but sometimes I had to tweak history for the sake of the story.  For example, In Book Two ASCENT I have Jeremy Kyner, the protagonist, attending the 1932 Cleveland Air Show.  The airshow took place in August of that year.  I moved it to September for reasons explained in the Afterward. 

How important is historical accuracy to credibility?  I suppose this is subjective, but I’d say it’s very important.  Why should someone take what I’m saying seriously if I can’t get the facts right?  For instance, I wanted to refer to actual newspaper headlines and stories in Book One RESCUE.  I have Benjamin Kyner, the protagonist, reading that America had declared war against Germany in the April 6, 1917 edition of the old Pittsburgh Press.  I was able to quote the paper exactly thanks to the assistance I received from the Hillman Library at the University of Pittsburgh. The staff put me on to an online source for digitized newspapers going back to the 19th century. 

Depicting historical events accurately was very instrumental in amplifying the plot and themes.  A main theme in BENJAMIN’S FIELD is overcoming prejudice and intolerance.  In the previous paragraph, I spoke about using actual headlines from real newspapers from the period.  So, in the same issue of The Pittsburgh Press, we see Benjamin’s son, Francis, reading glorified front-page reports of courageous aviators.  A bit later, Hiram Bolt, Benjamin’s African American hired hand, picks up the paper and notices that stories about Black military units are buried in the back pages. 

So, yes, history is very important to the themes in the story.

Q: Who do you intend to read the trilogy? Young adults? All ages? What do you want them to walk away with?

J. J. Knights: I consider BENJAMIN’S FIELD to be in the Young Adult genre, though I believe it would be both entertaining and valuable for older readers, as well. 

As to why, here’s an excerpt from the Forward by retired astronaut Jay Apt:

Especially useful to young readers, but valuable to us all, are the story’s lessons about this journey: our greatest achievements are for others, not ourselves; overcoming difficulties makes us stronger; disappointments can be blessings in disguise; help can come from unexpected sources; sometimes one door must close so another can open; it’s futile to blame the universe or a higher being for pain that’s inflicted by our fellow human beings.

Q: Reviewers are pleased that you were able to integrate themes such as “loyalty, personal liberty as it relates to society’s demands, religious prejudice, racism, intolerance, and the overwhelming need for humans to forgive one another.” Did you intend to leave readers with some messages? Or did you write purely for their entertainment?

J. J. Knights: Authors write for different reasons, of course.  Richard Bach, author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, once said that he doesn’t feel the need to write constantly, but only when an idea insists on getting out of his head and onto paper. 

That’s the way I felt about BENJAMIN’S FIELD.  The story was in my head begging to get out.

I didn’t write it merely for the sake of putting words on a computer screen. I certainly didn’t write it for the money!  I wrote the story because I truly believed it has socially redeeming value.  I wrote it because I think the themes and lessons presented in the story can be helpful to young people, especially those who may feel marginalized for whatever reason. 

I should explain that while aviation plays a strong supporting role in the story, it’s not what the trilogy is about.  My goal was to use aviation and flying as sort of a philosophical metaphor.  Jeremy Kyner is being held down by society, but uses aviation to lift himself up and eventually find final emancipation.  I hope the reader sees this.  Also, we use airplanes to take us places.  That’s how I use them in the story; to take the reader on a journey.  To underscore these concepts, I don’t use the words ‘airplane’ or ‘aircraft’ anywhere in the story.  That was a challenging feat to accomplish.

Q:  How helpful was your career as an FBI agent in creating your plot or characters?

J. J. Knights: As far as I can determine, I did not draw on my experiences in the FBI to write BENJAMIN’S FIELD.   That being said, the characters in a work of fiction are born in the imagination of the author.  Since we are the sum or our experiences, it’s inevitable that we’ll draw on our experiences and the people we’ve known to create the personalities that populate our stories. 

For instance, there’s a bit of my father in Benjamin.  Although he had no religion and often ridiculed it, as is the case with Benjamin, one of my father’s best friends was a Catholic priest.  As for the priest, some part of him is alive in the story’s Fr. James Templeman.

So, a psychologist might be able to dig out how my FBI career may have influenced my writing of the story, but I really can’t.

Q: Does the approach of heroes vs villains apply to your story? Or are your characters mostly a mix of heroic and not-so-heroic behavior? –flawed but well-intentioned?

J. J. Knights: There are villains, both without and within.

Since we’re all flawed, so are the characters in the story, both major and minor.  Both Benjamin Kyner, the protagonist in RESCUE, and his grandson Jeremy, the protagonist in ASCENT and EMANCIPATION, are definitely flawed, but in different ways. We follow them through their stories to learn how they overcome their flaws. Other characters, such as Fr. James Templeton, Randy Bridgewater and Phil Anders have glaring flaws, which are critical to helping Benjamin and Jeremy overcome theirs.

Yet, there are also real ‘external’ villains in the story, such as Jeremy’s eighth grade teacher, Regina Vilis (translate the Latin!) and the U-Boat commander in Emancipation. Why villains without and within?  Evil is necessary.  Without overcoming evil, we cannot find the good in ourselves and each other.

Q: How helpful was the use of humor to developing your characters or telling their story?

J. J. Knights: As I discussed earlier, humor is necessary as comic relief for the reader.  There are several very intensely emotional scenes in the story, and I don’t want the reader to feel as though I’m beating them up.  Also, I want the characters to be as real to the reader as they are to me.  Most people like to laugh.  So do the characters in BENJAMIN’S FIELD.

Q; What’s next? Will you continue to write novels?

J. J. Knights: I’m currently working on another historical novel based on actual events during the American Civil War.  I was inspired by my many visits to the Gettysburg National Battlefield in eastern Pennsylvania as well as my close association with Canada.  How are the two connected?  Stay tuned.

Q: Tell us about J. J. Knights. What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

J. J. Knights: I recently joined a veterans’ service organization called Team Rubicon that provides disaster relief services both domestically and abroad. As a matter of fact, just prior to writing this, I spent several days in Wisconsin participating in a joint disaster response exercise with Team Rubicon and the Wisconsin Air National Guard. 

I’m an avid amateur photographer and perform a lot of ‘pro bono’ shoots for different organizations.  Very recently I was asked to cover the 2016 annual convention of the National Association of Priest Pilots in Pittsburgh.  As their name implies, NAPP is a group of priests who own or fly general aviation airplanes, often in support of their ministries.

I spend a good deal of time in Canada where I maintain a rental cottage (Northern Knights Sea View Cottage) on Canada’s smallest and most beautiful province, Prince Edward Island. Coincidentally, PEI was home to Benjamin Kyner’s wife, Delinah.  Delinah’s character was inspired by a real French Canadian woman of the same name I knew as a child on PEI.

I have to mention that I have the fun of chasing around my 18-month old granddaughter, Lillian Noelle, and, as I mention on the back of my books, I’m also a beekeeper.  

About J. J. Knights

J. J. Knights is a retired FBI Special Agent. His assignments included violent crimes and fugitives, property crimes, civil rights investigations, and foreign counterintelligence. He was a surveillance pilot, SWAT sniper, media representative, and worked in the FBI's technical investigations program. Knights also volunteered as a Civil Air Patrol pilot, squadron commander and public information officer. He is an emeritus member of the Imperial Public Relations Committee of Shriners International and Shriners Hospitals for Children. A native of New England, Knights resides in southwestern Pennsylvania with his wife and honeybees. He has authored several published articles on law enforcement recruiting. Benjamin's Field is his first novel.

Book One: RESCUE

Forward by retired NASA astronaut Jay Apt, PhD, veteran of four space shuttle missions.

Benjamin’s Field: Rescue’ has been awarded a five-star review by the literary site ‘Reader’s Favorite’ (readersfavorite.com).

Benjamin’s Field follows a rural farm family over the course of sixty years from the viewpoint of the youngest member, Jeremy Kyner. Beginning with America’s entry into World War I, Jeremy and his family are followed through war, peace, triumph, tragedy, heartbreak, and final happiness as the reader examines the role of family loyalty versus individual need, personal liberty and how it relates to society’s demands, religious prejudice, racism, intolerance, the role of charity, and the overwhelming need for humans to forgive one another.

While still in manuscript form, Benjamin’s Field, Book One RESCUE, was advanced to the “Best Sellers Chart” of the peer review website YouWriteOn.com. In Book One RESCUE a widowed farmer suffers an unspeakable loss during World War I. Burdened with grief, he learns from his nemesis, a dogmatic Catholic priest, that his son’s fiance has given birth to their crippled child. Unable to cope with the child’s deformity and confounded by his illegitimate birth, the farmer is battered by those closest to him with accusations of cruelty and intolerance until he finally reveals his true feelings and the reasons underlying his apparent bigotry.

Set in a historical context, BENJAMIN’S FIELD is a compelling story about human dignity overcoming adversity, prejudice, and hatred. Interwoven with lighter moments, this dramatic and moving tale will take the reader on an emotional and sometimes humorous journey.

Book Two: ASCENT

In Book Two ASCENT Jeremy Kyner, now a teenaged boy, becomes the focus of his teacher’s animosity because of his infirmity. With the help of two dedicated school friends and an unconventional Jewish blacksmith, he takes to the sky, defeating his teacher’s plans to institutionalize him and forcing her to divulge her own, dark, secret.

BENJAMIN’S FIELD is a historical novel about human dignity overcoming adversity, prejudice, and hatred. Interwoven with lighter moments, this dramatic and moving story will take the reader on a journey of inner exploration.

Book Three: EMANCIPATION

Book Three EMANCIPATION opens as America is on the cusp of World War II. Jeremy Kyner, now a man, is barred from military service at a time when America is almost defenseless against marauding German submarines. Finally joining a group of volunteer civilian pilots that represents the country’s best hope to counter the Germans, Jeremy confronts a deadly enemy from an unexpected quarter and is offered a chance of achieving final emancipation.

BENJAMIN’S FIELD is a historical novel about human dignity overcoming adversity, prejudice, and hatred. Interwoven with lighter moments, this dramatic and moving novel will take the reader on a journey of inner exploration.

Excerpt
“Ben, what in blazes is going on?” asked Hiram. “Is that what I think it is?  I never saw one before.”  
“It sure looks like a flyin’ machine,” Benjamin answered. “I’m as surprised as you, but I’m gettin’ mighty damned mad that some fool just scattered my cows and knocked me into the dirt.”
Hiram doffed his hat and wiped his forehead.
“Why is that thing buzzin’ around here?” he asked.
“Hiram, you know as much as I do.  But if I get my hands on him, whoever is in that thing’ll wish he hadn’t come here to show off.  Damned idiot.”
Together, they watched as the machine flew east parallel to the field.  Then suddenly, just as they began to think it would continue on and leave them in peace, the strange craft turned left again and began to drop from the sky. As it neared the end of the field, it turned again, lowering its nose and aligning itself with the field. Just as it appeared to the two men that it would again scream over them, the tempo of the engine’s roar slowed.  The machine neared the ground and leveled off a few feet above the grass. The cows, now scattered, were no longer a danger to the flying machine.
Benjamin and Hiram stared slack-jawed as the boxy kite-looking thing approached them.  The roar of its engine dropped to a murmur and its wheels touched the grass. It bounced along the rough field, wings wobbling, toward the two gawking spectators.
Benjamin, alternately amazed and then angry at what he was seeing, began to allow his anger to hold sway.  Resentment was welling up inside him as if it had a life of its own; resentment at this intruder who surprised him; resentment at having to hurl himself to the ground like a frightened fawn; resentment at having no control over what was happening on his own land. 
Hiram, sensing Benjamin’s coiling anger, looked down at his fists. He placed his hand on Benjamin’s shoulder and said, “Ben, let’s take it easy. We don’t know what’s goin’ on here.  It could be he’s in trouble.”  
The quivering, cloth-wrapped machine trundled to a stop a few feet from Benjamin and Hiram. The long, slowly swinging wooden propeller emitted loud clicks at longer and longer intervals as it finally swung to a stop and puffed out one last gasp of blue-white smoke from the exhaust pipes on the top of the cowling. The machine had two wings, one above the other, just like in the newspaper photographs. Under the top wing, Benjamin could see two leather-encased heads protruding from the machine’s body.  One was a few feet behind the other. Both wore goggles that gave them bug-like appearances.  For the second time that day, Benjamin was speechless as the bug figure in front lifted his goggles to his forehead, waved at him and with a big smile said, “Hi, Pa!”

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