Author John Young Has a Huge Imagination

He revisits a character from an earlier short story in his new novel ”Getting Huge,” a cautionary tale about obsessive pumpkin farming.
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In his new novel, Getting Huge (Guernica Editions), Cincinnati writer John Young returns to a character from his 2021 short story collection Fire in the Field and Other Stories. On the Easter morning when the novel begins, Rev. John Crackstone is, according to Young, “at the point where his unhappiness is forcing a dramatic, perhaps dangerous, choice. He aches for some kind of success in his life, and his brain latches onto the crazy idea of growing the world’s largest pumpkin as the answer.” Growing the pumpkin, which Crackstone names Schwartz, quickly becomes an obsession, along with an alluring neighbor next door.

In this interview, Young explains why he wanted to return to this character, as well as some of the real-life places and experiences that inspired the new story. He will read from the novel at Joseph-Beth Booksellers at 7 p.m. April 13 (I’ll be interviewing him at the event) and at Studio Kroner downtown at 7 p.m. May 4.

You first wrote about this character in “Pumpkin Summer,” a short story from 2021. Why did you want to return to him here in this longer form?

I couldn’t stop thinking about these characters, or maybe they wouldn’t leave me alone. More depth emerged, like a spelunker who’s about to go home but decides to squeeze through that last passage and discovers a cavern with stalactites and stalagmites. I was drawn to the humor of the absurd situation and had to tell the full story.

The novel is pretty different from the short story, as you’d expect, going from 15 pages up to 300. For example, the narrator is 6-foot-11 in the novel, and his name changes to John Crackstone. (He was named Peter Whitmyer in the original short story.)

Crackstone seems profoundly disconnected from everyone in his life, even though everything looks pretty good on the outside. Were you interested in the juxtaposition of appearance versus reality in this book?

From the outside, it’s hard to know if things are really OK next door, right? I’ve been there. I didn’t see eye to eye with my business partners at one place I worked and I was miserable, yet I smiled around the office and tried to make the best of it. One of my staff said to me, “You’re the happiest leader in the company.” And I thought, Oh, if you only knew, but I thanked her and went on my way.

For Reverend Crackstone, he suffers from years of seeking misguided success with the wrong people in the wrong place. That triggers his pumpkin obsession and his neglect of family and career. He has trouble connecting with his kids. He and his wife drift apart. He makes assumptions and snap judgments about neighbors, deacons, family, and others. At one point John Crackstone’s father says his moral compass is malfunctioning. If not broken, it certainly needs adjustment.

Listening and being heard are important, and there are many conversations in your book where someone isn’t listening (often Crackstone himself). Can you talk a bit about the importance of listening in the novel?

Active listening is rare—and getting worse in our world. Poor listening, or at least poor communication, is absolutely on display in the novel. The Concord deacons, all of whom are rich businessmen, are used to giving orders and setting expectations, so they’re not very interested in hearing John’s thoughts and ideas, especially when it comes to helping the poor or battered women.

The same is true with John’s father, who was the successful minister at this church. John also fails to communicate well with his wife Nancy, failing to see her frustrations and losing sight of his love for her. Even Carol, the next-door neighbor, will say one thing but Crackstone hears it very differently from we as the readers do.

Crackstone discovers a passion for growing giant pumpkins, which becomes an obsession. How did you learn more about this pursuit? Have you tried to grow your own pumpkins? 

I used to live in the Boston area, and my wife and I went to the Topsfield Fair north of town back in 1990 on one of those warm early October afternoons when the leaves were just changing. We happened to see the giant pumpkin weigh-in. I grew up near an Indiana farm that grew pumpkins, but I’d never seen anything like these. I couldn’t believe it—so big an adult could sit inside. And after the initial surprise, I thought, Who does this? Who spends half a year nursing a giant pumpkin? And why?

I think this novel is my slow-cooked answer to those questions. As for me growing my own giant pumpkins, I don’t think so. I’ve already committed to the crazy idea of planting, cultivating, and nursing novels.

That reminds me of your acknowledgements, where you compare writing a novel to growing a pumpkin. Could you say more about that?

It’s an audacious idea to try growing the world’s largest pumpkin. And it’s a pretty audacious undertaking to write a literary novel, too—imagining a world of characters and places and envisioning the smells, sounds, tastes. With nothing more than words and sentences and meaning, you spend hundreds of days constructing and shaping people and places with the vain hope someone might read it and be touched by it. Even more vain, on the best days you dream of someone reading it 60 or 100 years from now.

What are you working on now? 

I’m working on my fourth book, another novel. At the moment, I’m wrestling with the third draft and trying to balance writing that and promoting Getting Huge. But as a rule, I don’t talk about works in progress—even my wife and my “creative cadre” don’t know much about it. Right now it’s all wet clay, still being shaped.

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