As a classically trained musician, John B. Campbell developed an interest in history while touring Europe in his youth. An interest in creative writing came along with his mid-life crisis. Campbell’s debut novel, Walk to Paradise Garden, earned an editor’s desk review wherein Harper Collins described his book as “compulsively readable.”
Campbell lives north of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with his wife, Pamela, and their two dogs.
Author Interview done by DelSherree on The Edible Bookshelf
What was your inspiration for “Walk to Paradise Garden?”
I am the organic type of writer, a pantser rather than a plotter. So, my initial inspiration was hazy at best. I was reading the biography of Maestro Arturo Toscanini and became amazed at the fullness of his lifespan. To have interacted with Russia’s Imperial family and with sensational composers, such as Verdi and Puccini, to have lived through the madness of the World Wars all the way up to see Elvis Presley’s gyrations and the birth of Rock and Roll (which ultimately may have done him in), well, all of that sparked my imagination.
Thus, at the outset, my aim was to illustrate how the world changed as a result of the Great War, and to do so through the eyes of two dynamic characters, a married couple. I wanted this couple to be both real (relatable) and inspirational—inspirational in a humanitarian way—and their story to cover a pretty long period of time.
While the story is fictional, the characters were in some ways based on real people, correct? Can you tell us a little about these individuals?
Very generally, I paralleled my characters, John and Evelyne Armitage, with the Armour family of Lake Forest, IL. America was fast becoming the industrial leader of the world, early in the twentieth century (a bit before, to be exact). By making John the son of a Chicago industrial baron in the business of meatpacking and related products, he and Evelyne would have the resources to pursue their philanthropic dreams.
My father had worked at Lake Forest College during my childhood. When I would accompany him to his office, we would pass the various Armour estates, which introduced me to such wealth. I’d also read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and wove into the story some of the era’s Socialist concerns, as well.
For those who aren’t familiar with where the title came from, can you tell us more about the reference?
Originally, my book was entitled Armitage House. When I was writing a big scene near the end of the story, wherein Evelyne is metaphorically using the idea of gardening while discussing positive childhood development through quality education, I had recalled the intermezzo by Frederick Delius, “The Walk to the Paradise Garden”. Despite a Midwestern element, the story is very British with more than half of it taking place in London and Sussex. The warmth that John and Evelyne demonstrated while caring for the many disadvantaged children in their work, along with the British setting, fit the bucolic music and added a measure of depth. Throughout the story, one might appreciate noting the garden backdrops into which some key scenes are set.
The title also indicates a journey, and that’s what the story had evolved into: a lifetime journey.
Here’s a YouTube clip of the music by Delius (I should add, please note the artists in this clip and the following one, as well).
The main characters face many personal trials. How did you balance the emotions in this book to keep it from getting too downhearted?
To be honest, I didn’t give that a thought. John and Evelyne became so real to me that their character’s dictated this balance. I can only add that a little dry humor and a sense of the absurd can often refresh us in life. I tried to pepper the story with such bits of relief to offset the edginess.
Bertie was a wonderful character. Without giving away too much, how did Bertie impact the story and the characters?
Bertie personified John and Evelyne’s work, to which they became so devoted. But again, I hadn’t planned on this. I enjoyed creating him, such as when John first met him and was taken with the boy’s large brown eyes. Those big dark pools looked back at him, whether assessing him or pleading for mercy, he couldn’t tell.
Through Bertie, the story takes on added momentum, resulting in a turning point and the crux of life’s lessons therein.
This book spans 90 years. How did you plot out over such a long period of time?
Again, the intent was to cover a long lifespan. Each decade offers its own charms and I tried to capture them as the characters grew. England in the 1920s: a classic whodunit during a country house party (and used for the purpose of foreshadowing). Paris in the 1930s: the Follies-Bergere with Josephine Baker, romance, ancient lanes leading to mysterious things like the secret Russian rescue group. Later, Hitler’s Blitz. Chicago in the 1950s and so on.
What is the message you hope readers take away from this book?
A rich, rewarding life comes from being generous and humane. We need people and art more than we need financial accumulation, as learned in 1929 and repeatedly since. And, how fine it is to leave behind something lovely that can grow.
Who are your favorite authors?
Anne Perry, Charles Todd, Will Thomas, Martha Grimes, Caro Peacock and Jeffrey Archer.
Do you have any interesting habits or rituals when you write?
Sometimes, I’ll turn on appropriate music, but in short order I go deaf as I submerge into a story.
Beverages at my side: I don’t suggest martinis (made a few tactical errors trying this), strong coffee in the mornings, pots and pots of tea later. My current book involves the Chinese in London’s Limehouse in the 1920s, so of late I’m sipping various Chinese teas.
Sometimes I write while our Chihuahua insists on stretching across my left wrist and our poodle rests his chin on my knee. They get a bit needy if I write too much in a day.
Can you tell us about any other books or projects you are working on?
Lastly, I’m a third of the way through A Lark Ascending. Again, I’m playing off the music of a British composer (this time, Ralph Vaughan Williams). Although this music is pastoral in its imagery—and while my character is struggling to survive in London’s seedy East End in the 1920s—the music nonetheless conveys an order in life that nourishes and succeeds.
Malcolm Roberts is twelve years old at the outset and is left to his own devices because his mother had died of the Spanish Flu and his father is in the throes of shell shock, his demons particularly being night terrors and alcoholism. Malcolm, naturally curious, makes some discoveries on the streets and acquires a number of people who want him dead.
“Chinamen” in Limehouse, a flamboyant auntie with her house full of mysterious bohemian artists and The Battle of Cable Street all test Malcolm’s ingenuity.
A sneak peek of this book can be found at authonomy.com.
Here’s a YouTube clip of The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams.