Today we travel to Fishers, Indiana in the United States to chat with Jeff Van Valer about how neurology, the U.S. Postmaster, Bill Clinton, Raiders of the Lost Ark, marathons, a flooded kitchen, American Pie, shame, mountain biking, and Mars come together as part of Jeff’s current and younger life.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
Greetings. My name is Jeff Van Valer. I’m a novelist Camilla has so graciously allowed to participate in MeetingtheAuthors. I live in Fishers, Indiana, USA and work as a neurologist.
In which genre do you write?
Thriller, mainly. My fiction catalog (two books, but we have to start somewhere, right?) is made up of a duet of books, soon to be a trio. I want them to fit into the Psychological Thriller genre, because they attempt to fool–but never lie to–the reader.
My first is The Light in the Trees and is a coming-of-age story. Many automatically substitute Young-Adult genre for coming-of-age, but I don’t. The Light in the Trees isn’t a first-person-present-tense story told by a twelve-year-old. The story is of a middle-aged man’s, decades-old secret of escalating summer-camp mischief that turned deadly. He grew up quickly that summer. Hence the coming of age designation.
How many published books do you have?
Three. Two novels: The Light in the Trees and White Birch Graffiti.
One nonfiction book, The Devil’s Tricycle (it’s because, in my real job as a neurologist and sleep-medicine specialist, I’ve grown tired of talking to every migraine patient about the tricks our minds play on us–and our migraines–as we choose too much caffeine and can’t get enough sleep).
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer and what ignited your author’s flame?
For anyone still reading, you’ll notice a connection between The Light in the Trees and my own summer-camp experience. In the ’80s, at what is now known as the Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan, I wrote a hell of a lot of letters and my cabinmates didn’t.
In high school, I put to paper–while in class, of course–a lot of dreams I’d had. In college, my dad asked me about an $11 check I’d written to the “U.S. Postmaster.” That’s when he realized I’d been buying $0.22 stamps, fifty at a time.
In graduate school, a physical chemistry test looming overhead, I bought a copy of John Grisham’s The Pelican Brief instead of studying and began more prolific, regular reading. Ideas for “big-boy” stories came after that.
Where did the idea for your most recent book come from?
Bill Clinton. When he was the governor of Arkansas and running for president. Sometime in spring, 1992, when I saw this young, charming guy playing saxophone on Arsenio Hall, I knew he was going to win the election.
At the time, I was in graduate school and no-longer able to return to my staff position at camp. While almost physically ill with sadness, I had Interlochen on the brain as I watched Mr. Clinton play his sax. Soon, I thought, “Even this electable feller must have a skeleton in the closet.” Turns out he had two. Their names were Jennifer Flowers and Paula Jones. When the media got a hold of them, there was no burying the stories.
But what if the candidate had but one such skeleton, and just eight other, 42-year-old men knew the candidate’s secret? If they all lived in different states, their only connection being that they’d been cabinmates at a Michigan camp thirty years before, could the campaign machine take care of it before it reached the media? That’s what became White Birch Graffiti. The Light in the Trees takes place one summer thirty years previously, when those boys were summer at camp.
What movie can you watch over and over without ever getting tired of?
This list is lengthy. Ready to fall asleep? Here we go… Nah. Let me just list the first two that pop into my head. These are tied for first among my all-time-favorite movies: Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Shawshank Redemption. But there are at least dozens of movies which, when I’m running channels on T.V., will cause me to drop everything and watch.
Can you play a musical instrument?
What songs hit you with a wave of nostalgia every time you hear them?
“American Pie,” by Don McLean. I wasn’t anywhere close to being alive when that plane crashed in 1959, so this song hits me for another reason. It was playing one spring day between innings at a college baseball game when my instincts told me I was losing my first love to another guy.
What is your favorite time of day and why?
Morning. It’s quiet, and the coffee tastes good. I’m mentally sharp, and no one invades my zone of creativity.
Have you ever had any Do It Yourself disasters?
Oh, sure. I once replaced my garbage disposal. As the dishwasher ran that night, it flooded my kitchen.
What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned about yourself through writing?
The depths of my own shame.
What is the most inspiring thing that has ever happened to you?
My kids. When my first was born, I discovered how profoundly important I needed to be. For my second, same thing.
You are about to speak publicly to a group and read from your latest book. What song do you listen to before speaking?
“Subdivisions” by Rush. If you’re a Rush fan, you’ll understand. If you’re not, the mere mention of the band has probably just caused you to click past this interview.
Badly explain your hobby.
I sit on an uncomfortable wedge that tries to separate my pelvis. My feet move in unending circles, I gravitate toward dirt, rocks, stumps, and roots, trying to go fast, then wonder what a breaking bone sounds like.
List 3 interesting facts about yourself.
I’ve run two marathons.
When I was 29, I spent three hours riding my road bike and talking to the guy who inspired the movie, Breaking Away.
I’m 5’10” tall, and I have friends the same height. People call them tall and they call me short. Irritating.
What’s the clumsiest thing you’ve done?
This past summer, I screwed up a drop on my mountain bike and went over the bars.
At this stage in your life, what advice would your young self give to your more mature self?
Identify what makes you happy and go for it. There is no greater legacy to leave your kids.
What’s the last movie you watched and why did you choose to watch it?
No Time to Die, the latest James Bond installment. Because Daniel Craig is my favorite James Bond.
If Mars or another planet was livable, would you accept a one way ticket there?
Sometimes I would, but most of the time, I think I need to try my best with what’s here on Earth.
Do you believe things happen for a reason?
I don’t. “Fate is just the weight of circumstances.” (Rush lyric from “Roll the Bones.”) We respond to opportunities (if we recognize them) and build our futures on them. We’re not passively living a pre-written script.
If you could ask your pet three questions, what would they be?
Why are you so loyal to me? What can I do to be that loyal to you? How do you remain so 100% present?
Describe the perfect solo date you’d take yourself on … where, time of day, weather, place, etc.
A warm, sunny day in Bentonville, Arkansas. Wake up, coffee, pancakes-eggs-and-bacon breakfast, ride my mountain bike all day on any number and skill-level of trails, return for dinner and a beer, then roll gently around town in a cooling breeze, and head back to the Airbnb when I’m tired.
Sincere thanks to you for reading, and thanks, Camilla, for the opportunity.
It was great learning more about you, and having you on MTA, Jeff! Wishing you all the best and much success with your books! – Camilla
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