The Unexpected Author:
Interview with John Steven Welch
By Carin Chea
John Steven Welch is a modern-day Renaissance Man. With an impressive scholastic resume, Welch is a former museum educator and administrator.
Dr. Welch (since he also holds a doctorate in art history from Princeton University) has had a fulfilling career curating, managing, and directing impactful art museum programming.
The One Who’s Gonna See You Through is Welch’s debut into fictional literature, and honestly: Who is better qualified to narrate a hero’s journey other than a connoisseur who understands the dynamic and nuanced nature of art?
Having already received glowing reviews, Dr. Welch’s book paints a story in a way only someone with an artist’s soul could do. The One Who's Gonna See You Through is a much-welcomed departure from your typical, paint-by-numbers coming of age story.
Everything in it is unexpected – its protagonist, the storylines, and even the outcomes. Just like its author, the book is unconventional and inspiring.
You are quite an art historian with an impressive career. What was it that sparked you to write your first book?
There had always been a dormant desire to write creatively. I’ve had many years writing in a different mode. So, when I stepped away from working full time in 2012, I saw that as an opportunity to focus on my creative writing.
I always wanted to tell this story. This book is really about a young gay black boy raised by a loving, illiterate father. In many ways, it’s a departure from the coming-of-age literature I had read. There are aspects of this story that are so different from that set of literature.
Tell us about The One Who’s Gonna See You Through.
It's about identity and striving to realize one’s self. It’s a love story, a story of self-actualization, and it’s about happy outcomes.
At 10 years old, GJ (Gregory John) the story’s focus, is a chief witness for his father’s murder trial. He had witnessed a man trying to kill him and his father. Also at 10, GJ really has no confusion about his sexual identity. He comes out to his father who loves and supports him.
In the case of African American males, the father is almost always presented as homophobic. Here there is a detour from this stereotypical trope. I hope that departure gives readers a different lens onto a gay, black male coming-of-age story.
At the age of 10, GJ also has first sexual experience with a rough teen in the neighborhood. By 14, he has begun a seven-year relationship with a 37-year-old partner. He was also a fly-on-the-wall in the Black gay bar scene of the mid and late 70s in Washington, DC.
Ironically, GJ also fell in love with watching The Waltons on television. He loved John-Boy, because John-Boy wanted to write. Anyway, GJ always had this bigger dream about romance. By 21, he had ended that seven-year relationship. He wanted a bigger life and his partner wanted to stay where they were and live a simple life.
That opened the door for GJ. He met a 26-year-old, white, Yale-educated congressional staffer who would become the love of his life. GJ goes from being a college dropout to graduating from Columbia University and earning a PhD from Princeton.
Are you the main character in The One Who’s Gonna See You Through?
There are aspects from the book that are from my life. I grew up in DC and my father was on trial for murder. I got a PhD from Princeton, but most of the other aspects are fiction. It is a work of fiction informed by my life.
What message do you want to convey in your book?
The book has two overarching messages.
The first is, if you are gay and you know yourself from an early age, don’t be dissuaded by people who insist you must be fluid or confused. It’s okay to be fluid, but the book tells you it’s also okay to know yourself early too.
The second message is: Whatever your dream in life is, you should keep that in your soul. If you keep it in your soul, you will learn how to realize it.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard it that beautifully said.
Thank you. With my own experience in being involved with a career that was very removed from writing novels, this desire to write creatively was always deep within me. I had always kept it deep in my soul.
If The One’s Who’s Gonna See You Through were made into a mini-series, who would play the protagonist?
I have had thoughts about this story being adapted to film, but not in terms of the actor(s)? The actor portraying the young GJ would have to be African American.
In terms of someone who’s a contender? I would be open to letting the studio come up with candidates and it would really depend on that person’s ability to convey the essence of the character.
I don’t think I’ve heard that response to this question either. I really appreciate your openness and flexibility when it comes to your creative process.
I feel very much that way about this story and its main character. It really depends on whether a given actor can understand and translate this boy’s story.
The same is true of his adult love interest. That person could be any number of actors too. The fact that it’s an interracial relationship gives us a wider spectrum of possibilities.
I know this may be impossible, but if you had to choose one work of art to encapsulate the essence of your book, which artwork would it be?
It’s funny you should ask that. In the book, there’s a point at which GJ is a witness for his father’s murder trial. He has been separated from his father and has a caretaker.
At the juncture in the trial, when they break and the jury deliberates, GJ goes with his caretaker to the Corcoran Museum and he only wants to see one painting, Niagara (1857), because he loves seascapes and landscapes.
The painting is a spell bounding rendering of Niagara Falls at its dramatic fall line where the waters are cascading to the depths below. GJ is on that fall line emotionally at this viewing and wonders if his life can hold fast like the twig in the picture’s foreground or if life as he has known it with his father will all go crashing to some frightening and unknown depths.
The painting’s sublime nature captures the emotions that GJ is having at that moment about what could happen, how his life as he had known it could be at an end.
That painting is by Frederic Edwin Church and it really resonates for GJ at that moment in the story. It’s certainly one painting that captures many aspects of the book.
GJ is a character whose life is very affirming and happy at the end. Even though he’s sustained a lot of lows along the way, ultimately, his is a story about love and happiness.
There’s a lot of pain surrounding his life, but GJ comes through it all with unexpected outcomes. You’d think that where he started out, there would’ve been a horrible trajectory to his life, but actually there’s a very happy outcome with his life.
That’s great. We need more hopeful stories these days.
Given his poverty, his race, his sexual identity, one would think that there would’ve been a very different trajectory to his life. But, he has good fortune, drive, talent and intellect on his side and they take him on a different path.
One thing game changing in his life was his partner, who later became his husband. At the juncture when GJ met him at 21, he was a college dropout.
Because his partner was such a loving, supportive, driven intellect in his own right, his encouragement and sustaining love over the course of their 40+ years together must be seen as one of the most transformative influences on GJ’s life.
Are there any upcoming projects you’d like us to know about? A sequel perhaps?
I’m not working on a sequel to this particular book, though I’m open to it. I believe there may be opportunities for sequels that focus on any one of the backstories of characters like Daddy, Miss Carrie or Mother.
I am working on a second writing project now set in 2095. It’s about a woman with a very human dilemma driving the story. Though set in the future, it will be more akin to literary fiction than science fiction and I may turn it into a novella rather than a novel.
Everything about you is so refreshing and unexpected!
For more information, please visit JSWelchBooks.com.
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