[Interview] Jay Luke

Musician, graphic designer and local historian, Jay Luke is a graduate from Marywood University. He is also a project engineer with the Olyphant Coal Miner Memorial Association.

His first book, When Coal Was Queen (Tribute Books, 2009), looks at the history of Olyphant, Pennsylvania.

In this interview, Jay Luke talks about his writing:

When did you start writing?

I began writing while in grade school. It was mainly lyrics. I would write these songs and kept at it as often as I could. I think, looking back, my earliest attempts are very laughable, but on the same token they were the springboard to better things. Without those early fearless attempts, I may not have had the courage to dive in later on in life. So I never gave up and kept refining my writing craft.

I think things really heated up for me during my high school years. I think it was where my creativity came into its own. With each song I'd write, I noticed they always told a story of some sort and that was when I decided maybe I can put together a real story that doesn't have to rhyme or fit into a musical score. So again I assembled parts little by little and eventually I got some short stories.

I put the writing on a shelf as my art career took off a bit and my band played continuous shows. My recent publication came about due to my activity in the town of Olyphant, PA. I'm a project engineer for The Olyphant Coal Miners Memorial Association. We set out to erect a bronze statue in town that would memorialize the countless men who'd sacrificed their lives in the anthracite abyss. When we accomplished that goal, the next step we planned was to put a little book out, as a "Thank you" to those who donated for the statue. Once I began writing, it quickly turned from a small project into a very tireless research project and it ended up as the greatest history lesson I'd ever had.

How would you describe the writing you are doing?

My writing, for the book I'm promoting now, is historical/documentary style. I took on the difficult task of delving in the origins of the town history of Olyphant. I learned relatively quickly that this was to be no easy task. Often during research I found dates from previous publications clashed with others, and spellings were inaccurate. It was sometimes a maddening experience, but it meant a lot to me to get this as accurate as possible. I didn't want others to have to go through as much trouble as I did in search of good information.

My target audience for this publication are people in the area of Northeastern PA. Not just Olyphant residents but even those of surrounding towns. I felt strongly that as more time passes, places and names of historical significance seem to disappear. That isn't as much of a problem for people of my generation and older, but younger kids today really have nothing to teach them what their town was like when their early ancestors first came here. We were fortunate enough to have had our grandparents tell us tales of the old days, and today it's a different story. So I was motivated to try to bridge the gap and help those who are curious of their area's origins learn where it all started.

Which authors influenced you most?

Being that this book is a history book, I really didn't have any authors that I could say were a direct influence. I kind of went from my heart on this one more than anything.

Had you asked me who influenced my upcoming novel, I would have said Dan Brown, Ian Caldwell, Dustin Thomason, and Elizabeth Kostova. (Hopefully I can speak more of that closer to publication time.)

How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?

I think the most obvious answer here is that I grew up in this town and have been lucky enough to have spoken to countless people who had a great knowledge of the area.

Nothing beats first-hand accounts, and in a lot of ways, I look at the elders of the town to be like living national treasures. They know the real story, because writing about history is so hard since most of the writers weren't there. In my case, I've been lucky enough to have talked to those who were there and discussed the important events and facts about the subject matter.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

My concerns were that when I finished this book no one would have to travel the difficult road I did in finding the information. I hoped it would be a great shortcut to accurate knowledge. I wanted this to be a great help to students and new residents of the area alike to find out more about the area.

My concerns as a writer were numerous. I wanted to make sure that the dates, spellings, and events were all accurately described. So many dates clashed and the biggest error I caught was that when researching the first woman ever to enlist in the U.S. Navy, Ms. Loretta Walsh of Olyphant, I found that her name has been misspelled on a historical marker in town for years. I found it to be a great injustice and hope that when I get some responses to the request it will be fixed. I mean, not everyone may read my book but every day people are walking by that marker and it is inaccurate.

So many things that have been previously published had data that didn't match up, so I really had to do my homework and live in libraries to trace things as far back to the sources as I could to get the final data.

Do you write everyday?

I try to write a little each day, most of the time if I'm too busy to do anything else. It'll be journal entries. They either begin in the morning or before I go to bed. I find writing before sleep can be better than a sleeping pill. Getting everything out before sleeping definitely helps get a better night's rest.

As for the right time to write, I have to say that it could be anytime. Inspiration hits everyone at different times, and in my case it'll take me by surprise and I have to hope I'm within quick reach of a pen and paper when it occurs.

How many books have you written so far?

As of this very moment, I have only one published work entitled When Coal was Queen, published by Tribute Books in August of this year (2009).

The book is about the origins of a town called Olyphant, PA. Interesting events that have occured through its history, famous residents and visitors, as well as its storied anthracite-rich past.

How did you choose a publisher for the book?

It was published through Tribute Books in Eynon, PA in August of 2009. The publisher was chosen because we wanted to keep this publication as local as we could, as that was a theme of ours, and also because I know the owner of Tribute Books very well. So it seemed the obvious choice to go with a reliable publisher rather than someone we had no connection with.

Which were the most difficult aspects of the work you put into When Coal was Queen?

I found the fact checking and editing to be the most difficult portion of the entire process. Right up until the hour it was sent to the publishers, I was still trying to go over everything with a fine tooth comb to make sure my information was accurate, and that was a good thing because that was when I noticed a name I had down was misspelled, not within my book, but on a historical marker for Loretta Walsh, the first woman in the U.S. Navy.

I was going over my information and looked at the plaque and thought something was out of place. It turns out the marker spelled her first name as "Lorretto." So it pays to really look over your subject matter thoroughly.

I enjoyed the researching and speaking to people about what they knew the most. Not only was it enjoyable to hear the stories, but the education it provided me was remarkable. Out of all my research, the oral discussions were the most informative. They gave the whole human element that can often be lacking in library research.

I also got to travel around town with my camera in very obscure locations which almost made it feel like an Indiana Jones style adventure.

What sets When Coal was Queen apart from other things you've written?

For one, I've usually only written fiction.

I have always had a serious interest in history but never imagined I'd one day write a book on it. I am the sort of person that will pass through a place and always wonder what it might've looked like 300 years ago. So this book is a stark contrast to my usual writing and songwriting.

It was a great departure but a very thrilling one.

What will your next book be about?

I might do a second edition to When Coal was Queen.

I am also underway with a novel I began some years ago. It is a thriller with a looming suspense throughout the book. It is about two childhood friends that grow up very differently and one goes on and accomplishes some truly miraculous feats. The greatest part will naturally be the climatic ending, which I hope you all get to read soon.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

Aside from getting published, I would have to say it's been the warm reception I've been given. I had no idea this book would've struck such a nerve. Seeing people get very emotional when they come up to me is a feeling I cannot describe. People have such fond memories of the coal miners and it is a wonderful tribute to them to keep their memories alive, even if it is just by re-telling their stories.

On the opposite end, when younger kids come up to me and ask me for help or advice on Olyphant for their school projects that is the entire reason I started this process, and to see a goal continually get accomplished is one of life's greatest gifts.

I thank each and every person who has helped me along the way. This has been one of the best experiences of my life.

Possibly related books:


Related interview:

[Interview] Patricia Fry: editorial consultant, publisher and freelance writer, Conversations with Writers, October 27, 2008


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