About The Author
Justin Go was born in Los Angeles to a Japanese father and an American mother. He was trained as a historian at UC Berkeley and holds an MA in English from University College London. Justin has lived in Tokyo, Paris, London, New York City and Berlin, among other places. The Steady Running of the Hour, his first book, took ten years to write. At present Justin is at work on a second novel.
In The Steady Running of the Hour, a young American, Tristan, discovers he may be the heir to the unclaimed estate of an English World War I officer, which launches him on a quest across Europe to find documented evidence of his direct lineage back to the officer.
In a breathless race from London archives to Somme battlefields to the Eastfjords of Iceland, Tristan pieces together the story of a short-lived but passionate affair set against the tumult of the First World War and the pioneer British expeditions to Mt. Everest. Following his instincts through a maze of frenzied research, Tristan soon becomes obsessed with the tragic lovers, and he crosses paths with a mysterious French girl named Mireille who suggests there is more to his quest than he realizes.
Below, we talked to Justin about the risks we take with our lives in order to feel alive, the benefits and drawbacks of having studied history when it came to writing a partly historical novel, and the irrationality of romantic love.
Photo of Justin © Marlene Dunlevy
Questions & Answers
In 2008 you were working at a law firm in New York; what made you leave it all behind and go to Berlin to write this novel, having never previously written?
I was unhappy at the law firm because it wasn't a life I'd chosen. I'd wound up there because I needed a job, but I could remember a time when my life had been different. When I'd graduated from college five years before that, I'd gone to Europe with a backpack, believing that if I put myself out there, I'd find something. And it had worked. I'd go hitchhiking or walk across a city all night, and sooner or later, something would happen. Not necessarily the thing I'd been expecting, but something special. In New York I missed that sense of unpredictability, the feeling that everything could change in an instant. I felt there must be some way out. So I started writing.
What came to you first, the part of the story set in the 1920s or the contemporary search for the truth about that period?
History was the starting point. I'd been reading a lot of literature of the Great War, and at the same time I'd always been fascinated by the history of Everest. One day it struck me how many of the 1920s Everest climbers had fought in the war. It seemed such a powerful set of experiences to live through. History is always around us, but it usually seems like a passive force, something lying dormant in the streets and buildings. I imagined a story where something from the past came forth to exercise power over the present. That past was Ashley's estate. The rest grew from there.
Does climbing fascinate you as it did Ashley; can you identify with his sense of it (or some other activity) making him 'feel real'?
I am fascinated by climbing, both the ideas behind it and the actual practice. I'm not a good climber myself -- and climbing sometimes terrifies me -- but in a way, that's part of the fascination. Everyday life has a way of numbing you, of making you forget who you are and what you care about. Climbing -- difficult, demanding, and intensely solitary -- brings out parts of you that you didn't know exist. It seems strange that we would risk our lives in order to feel alive. But it takes a certain struggle to remember what truly matters.
I'm guessing you also found yourself identifying with Tristan, who, though he had a job to do, was also clearly receptive to the idea of travel, exploration and the unearthing of the truth?
Certainly we have a lot in common. At the same time I was writing Tristan's scenes I would be going to the same libraries as him, or visiting the same museums; sometimes I'd imagine him discovering a piece of evidence, and it'd be mirrored a few weeks later by a similar letter or telegram I'd see in an archive. That always felt uncanny. But by the time I finished the book, Tristan was ten years younger than me. The main characters in the novel are all quite young, and I wanted them to act as I felt in my early twenties, when it seemed like everything was at stake at every moment.
The battlefield scenes come across as very realistic, very visceral, and also brought out the sense of futility for many of the men on the ground. What research did you do?
I read everything I could get my hands on. Letters, memoirs, diaries, military records, photographs, period films, anything I could find. In museums I'd stare at weapons or uniforms or equipment for hours, just to imagine how they felt and how they worked. With the battle scenes I felt a terrible responsibility to get it right. They were the last parts I wrote. All the research was directed towards one aim, which was to be able to imagine what it felt like to be there. The idea is that if you can put yourself there, and you write it well, the reader will be there too.
You've produced a photo blog of your journey to becoming a writer; did you always plan to publish that as well as the novel itself?
I made the website after I finished the first draft of the novel. I had a vague sense that I ought to have a website if I was going to look for an agent. During all the years I'd been writing the book I'd deliberately not looked into the publishing side of things, because I worried it would discourage me. The book itself was planned very carefully, but I had no plan for how I would sell it. I hoped that if I took care of the writing, the rest would work itself out.
Was the writing an excuse to travel or the travel an excuse for writing? How much did it matter whether the book actually got published or not, except that if it did you would presumably feel even better about doing the whole process all over again?
The writing mattered more than anything. It was a bonus that it seemed to justify all the traveling I'd been doing, and all my strange interests over the years. I would like to say that it didn't matter whether the book was published. But it did matter, because I had poured everything I had into it, and when I started questioning the book, I began to question my whole life. Being published saved me, because it seemed to prove that I hadn't wasted everything, that I had been right to go after what I believed in.
Did your background as a history student help or hinder you when writing the novel?
My research was based on primary sources -- letters and books and records from the period -- and it was studying history that had gotten me into reading those kinds of things. I'd also grown familiar with the methods of archival research. But a novel is quite different from normal historical research, and it was hard explaining to librarians that I didn't want a particular letter or even a particular year of letters -- I wanted to look through all of them, and I couldn't explain why, except that I had some intuition I'd find something.
The drawback to having studied history was that I felt a serious responsibility to be accurate with everything, even the smallest details. But that's impossible. Eventually I had to accept that there were limits, and I couldn't spend months trying to figure out how much a night at the YWCA cost in 1916.
You come across as quite a romantic, with Ashley, Imogen and Mireille all holding a candle for those they love, long after others might have given up. Have you or could you imagine doing the same for someone?
I have. I actually think a lot of people have had experienced something like Ashley and Imogen's love, it's only that in their case the circumstances are so extreme. But all romantic love is inherently irrational. There's no practical reason to drive yourself crazy over another person's affection, but we do it all the time. It's what marks us as human. You could find a million examples to prove that people are driven only by naked avarice, but you could also find a million examples of people loving someone for years, for no good reason at all. Maybe we shouldn't do it. But we do.
Did you know from the outset that there would be no happy ending for Imogen and Ashley? Did you fight against their envisaged fate during the writing process?
I tried to make the book as true to life as I could, and a happy ending never fit for Ashley and Imogen. The reader knows about Ashley's death from the beginning. At one point I did try a scene that might have softened the blow. But it didn't change the outcome. And it felt fake.
A writer has a duty to be true to the characters and the story. The contrived happy endings in movies and books seem like a denial of life, a denial of the world we live in. I spent years looking at history, at the lives of real people, and sometimes things don't end the way we would like. But we can accept that and choose to focus on the moments that matter most. You could say that Ashley and Imogen had an unhappy ending, or you could say that they loved each other deeply, that they had more in a week than some people ever get, that it stayed with them, and that even if they knew it wouldn't last forever, they wouldn't have traded that for anything.
To read about Justin's fascinating journey across the world to research and write The Steady Running of the Hour, please visit his website: http://www.justingo.com/