From writing copy to writing novels: Jonathan Harries

Jonathan Harries

Jonathan Harries

“Arrogance is a terrible
thing for a writer to have.
I know what she’s thinking.
I know what he’s thinking.
You don’t.”

Jonathan Harries

When I first met Jonathan Harries in the late 90s, I remember how engaging, funny and straight forward he was. I enjoyed his wit, humor and worldview over the ensuing four years that we shared at FCB.

Jonathan’s first novel, “Killing Harry Bones” was good. Really good. Good enough, in fact, that Reel Chicago ran a short story on its success.

When I heard about the impending publication of his second novel, “Infatuation: A Novel of Questionable Taste,” the story of a belly dancer named Fanny Packer who may be in possession of the Kama Sutra, I realized Harries was not a “one and done” author

I also realized that Jonathan won’t trumpet his talents because that’s not who he is, so I sat down with the talented New Yorker to help spread the word.

A novel of questionable taste? Tell me more. Yes, yes. The book is really about these desperate characters who get together and discover they have a common purpose. Let me clarify – they don’t necessarily get together because of a common purpose. They get together and find out they actually have one.

That’s very “Lynchian” of you. He apparently doesn’t know where the story is going either. He just gets an idea and starts flowing. To be honest, when I write I don’t really know where the book is going. I don’t plot it out. Which is probably a bad thing to do. But, I’m not trying to write the great American novel. I’m just trying to write a fun novel.

Did you at least know the gist of the plot or did you just get an idea for “Infatuation” and just go with it? Interestingly, I had breakfast with my old creative partner from Grey Advertising last weekend and she asked me the same question. I reminded her about a time we were on a shoot probably thirty-three or so years ago in Los Angeles. The shoot ended late and were looking for a restaurant and all we could find was a Middle Eastern restaurant that was somewhere on Sunset. We went in and it was it was a very dingy place with cushions on the floor and a belly dancer. I Just couldn’t get that belly dancer out of my head and I kept wondering where she was from and what she was all about?

Ah Ha! So, she was the inspiration for Fanny Packer! If she only knew! Yes, yes. She stayed on as a character. And that’s the way the book opens up. It’s really her backstory. My first book was the backstory of a character based on someone I actually knew who committed suicide. And I always wondered if he hadn’t committed suicide what would have happened to him? So, they’re all based on what could happen if you knew somebody’s real back story. Then I bring the other characters in and develop the plot as they all start connecting.

So, do you find as a writer that the characters at one point start speaking to you? That’s a really interesting question. They do in their own way. My characters do start to take it (the story) in a direction. Wherever they’re saying it’s going is where I’m going.

(Harries’ new book)

How long is “Infatuation” and how long did it take you to write it? It’s a relatively short book. My publicist says it’s written for someone who wants to have a fun read flying between New York to Los Angeles. It’s a six-hour read. Probably shorter.

How would you say it differs from “Harry Bones” thematically? “Harry Bones” was really about how greed is destroying the world. With the new book, Fanny Packer and her secret lover, who has this weird infatuation with her based on her looks. However, after he meets her, he realizes how smart she is and starts admonishing himself for being a typical male. So, there’s a lot of that kind of realization. But this book was meant to be more an escape.

How do you feel like you’ve evolved as writer since “Killing Harry Bones”? I’ve really started to understand how one needs to use voice in order to make characters distinct. In fact, I’m just about halfway through my third book which is a follow up to “Killing Harry Bones.” And as I’m writing it – because I’m using a lot of the same characters – I realized I really need to know these characters perfectly.

It really is an accomplishment to understand character and voice. If you read someone like Carl Hiaasen, who is one of my favorite authors, his characters tell stories in such incredible ways and that to me is certainly where I would love to get to. I want to develop quirky characters that have their own distinct voices and are able to carry a story forward.

After two and a half books do find yourself falling into any kind of writing traps? Or Are you still discovering? If you listen to some really good authors, they talk about how they write seven hours a day. I would love to be able do that. I just can’t. I probably write three hours a day. I get to a point where I just can’t see the word. I have to stop. It’s probably just laziness. That’s a trap that I fall into very easily – the lazy person’s way of writing. When you get a little writer’s block you start watching YouTube or Netflix.

I think we all do at some point. When you’re in advertising, the concept of “writer’s block” really doesn’t exist because you have a deadline. You have to present the work on Friday afternoon and it’s Thursday morning, you don’t have the luxury of saying, “I’m just going to take three days or more.”

Where do you like to write? I go to a place called The Yard on 27th and 5th. I sit with guys who are mostly half my age. Many of them are starting up companies. They’re all really young and enthusiastic and sitting with them actually is very stimulating as opposed to sitting at home.

So, do you go every day. That’s the part? I do every morning by 9:30 and I stay ’til 12:30 and then come back.

That’s great! That’s the big battle with writing – really having structure. I think it’s important. I also try to not go in a pair of shorts. I try to wear a jacket, not a tie obviously, but jeans and a jacket so at least I feel like I’m going to an office.

Do you feel comfortable writing a character of the opposite sex? Sometimes, I find it a challenge. I’m just doing the best I can under the circumstances. I can’t be her, but I can I can try to understand her character, her motivations and how she as a character will respond to situations.

I think that’s key. That you know the character. I think that’s when you get into shallow stereotypes when you’re just trying to write what would a woman do here? I think arrogance is a terrible thing for a writer to have. I know what she’s thinking. I know what he’s thinking. You don’t. But you can try and understand them as characters and learn about them as you write and then go back and rewrite. I don’t even think what would happen if I were a belly dancer? I about who the belly dancer is as a person.

Who is the first person to read your book? My editor is the first person to read it. I give it to him first, because he edited my first book and he was really great to work with. I think I frustrated him a bit because I didn’t listen to everything he suggested.

Ha Ha. Who does? I was better on the second book, but my editor is still the first person to read it. Then I gave it to my youngest son and my youngest stepson for feedback.

Do you feel like you reinvented yourself? Are you now Jonathan Harries, author? When I left advertising, I didn’t want to say I was retired. When I would visit another country and they would ask me my occupation, I wanted to answer, “author.” That was my motivation for writing books more than anything else. When I went to Toronto for the reading of “Harry Bones,” I was going through customs and the agent asked, “What are you?” I said, “Author.” He said, “Oh great!” He then began to ask me about the book.

Ha! That’s awesome and I understand. Advertising was great. I had a good time for quite a few years and then a shitty time during some years. But it was fine and it’s done. I’m no longer in advertising. I don’t miss it at all. I’m happy to help anyone who needs any advice. But to be honest, I don’t read any advertising magazines anymore or follow it.

You’re an author, now. When you mentioned the Toronto reading, I got a chill because I know that feeling and it’s a great feeling. It really energizes you. I can hear it in your voice. If you could go back and tell your younger writing-self anything what would it be? I would say really think about characters. That is something I wish I’d thought about back to advertising. I never paid attention to the characters. And I if I could go back, it would have helped me truly understand what I’m trying to do now.

Comparing the first time you see “Harry Bones” in print vs. “Infatuation” any difference in feeling? The first book is your first child. It it’s such an amazing feeling and it feels so great. The second one finds that you’re kind of used to it, but it still feels good.

Infatuation: A Novel of Questionable Taste is now available on Amazon. Click here to order.

Contact Colin Costello at or follow him on Twitter @colincostello10.