Bernard Jan is the pseudonym of an award-winning author from Zagreb who is best known for his heartfelt novels, which he publishes in Croatian and English. Apart from being a dedicated writer, Bernard Jan is also a wonderful person with a lively sense of humor and a warm, understanding heart. His great love for people and animals is evident in his many years of work for animal rights and environmental protection. He is an artist worth knowing, and this interview is meant to give you a glimpse into the unique soul he pours out in his work.
How did you start writing? Was it a decision or did it happen naturally?
My writing was not a planned decision. It was more of a need to do something at a certain time. Something that matters. I was always good at writing in school and I enjoyed reading books for homework. So when the moment came to write something concrete, something that had value (at least I hope so), in my early twenties, it just poured out of me. The dam broke and the flood of words came out, triggered by traumatic events in the 1990s when the war broke out as the Yugoslav army attacked Croatia after it proclaimed its independence. Faced with the sudden possibility that we could all die at any moment, and I had not yet done anything of greater significance with my young life, I began to write. The new reality urged me to do so. To document everything that happened as honestly as I could, as a reminder of the atrocities and horrible things that should never happen again. It was my cry for freedom and peace. My writing was my war for truth and peace.
Since the traumatic event of the war triggered your creativity, do you think the earthquake in Zagreb last year had the same effect, or did this trauma cause something else?
The earthquakes in Zagreb were very traumatic for me. Earthquakes are my phobia and I was crazy when they happened. I couldn’t function for weeks. They did not trigger my creativity; they just triggered trauma, nightmares and sleepless nights. It took me three months to start getting back to normal, and my recovery only occurred when I left Zagreb to visit a friend by the sea. There I found my peace. With the new quakes in Banovina, everything started again, if not worse. I can only imagine how the people who still live there feel. It is a real tragedy.
What was the book or poem or any work of art that changed you or influenced you as a writer?
I have read so many books in my life and I have, or had since I am reducing it now, a huge library of over 1,500 books. Almost every book I’ve read has left some kind of mark. Maybe that’s why I’m a cross-genre writer, or maybe I just like a variety of genres and styles. I write YA novels and novellas with the elements of mystery, sci-fi, dystopia, war, romance, coming-of-age, animal rights and environmental issues, poetry, you name it. If I want to be more specific: Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach was my inspiration for Look for Me Under the Rainbow, a novella about Danny, a curious and cute seal pup, and Helen, a Rainbow Warrior and environmentalist, on her mission to save him before the seal hunt begins in Canada. To give another example: Watchers by Dean Koontz, the book and the movie The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller, and the book The Body by Stephen King, as well as the movie Stand by Me were the inspiration for January River. It is a cross-genre, literary fiction, coming-of-age, YA, mystery and romance novel about five friends, a dog and a river that carries a secret. I dedicated my novella A World Without Color to my cat, Marcel, and it’s a short memoir of the last three days we spent together. It was also my way of surviving those days when I was sure my life was over. The translation of my latest YA cross-genre novel with its human rights message, which I published on Amazon, Cruel Summer, was inspired in small part by the The X-Files series and the movie Kids. It is a dedication to New York City, the city I love dearly, and to the great times I spent with my friends, the inline skaters and skateboarders in my hometown. Those were the days.
Can you describe your writing process?
Hmm, I don’t think I have a particular writing process. I haven’t written a book in a very long time, unless you consider translating and editing or blogging and writing reviews for other books as writing too. When I write, I need my peace and quiet because then I’m living in a different world, with my characters, so I like to shut myself off from the distractions of the physical world. I work until my eyes bleed or I drop from exhaustion, depending on how I feel or if I have a headache that day. It’s not something I would recommend to others, but it’s who I am. When I do something, I go full speed ahead, like a machine. I push myself to my limits. However, it can take me a while to get going. I can live with my book in my head for years (or just a few days) before I write the first lines. On the other hand, I can write two books in a row with no problem if I’m in the right mood and everything around me is working like clockwork.
When did you first share your writing with others? Being a poet myself, I have to admit that it took me a while to start sharing my work with other people. I couldn’t understand the driving force behind it, because I have always maintained that I write for myself, and yet I had this desire to share my poetry. What is the reason for you to share your work?
The moment I wrote my first novel in Croatian, Anđeo moga rata. I was lucky that the people I showed it to loved it, encouraged me, and helped me get published. I had no problem keeping it a secret and keeping it to myself, as was the case with some of my poems and songs that I wrote during my military service and later destroyed, because I wrote this book with the intention of sharing it with others. Soon after, I wrote another book, then another. The ball started rolling. Though each time it wasn’t easy, just as it isn’t easy to get your books published on Amazon if you want to do it the right, professional way. However, that’s my mission, and I plan to accomplish it for five of my books.The reason for sharing my work is in the tagline on my website: “There is no greater joy than to share what you love with those who appreciate it.” I share things I love with others, things that make me happy or affect me greatly. Things that I stand for. I also write about them and share them with others through my story. There is always a subtle message that careful readers can find between the lines. And sometimes it’s out there, plain as day.
I could not agree more! However, I‘m sure many people are afraid of criticism, especially criticism that is not constructive. How do you deal with critics?
I’m only human. Does that answer your question, haha? Yeah, I’ve gotten a few bad critics, one of them was even a bit mean and accusatory and far from the truth. But that’s what happens when someone doesn’t read the whole book and starts complaining ahead of time, while the answers they’re looking for are already there, just upon turning another page or a few pages further. I don’t take reviews like that to heart because they aren’t objective and honest. I respect that not everyone has to like your books. That is fine. We are different and have our preferences. I don’t like every book I read either. It’s just that I don’t berate other authors in front of everyone because their books weren’t right for me, while they are perfect for someone else to read. If something bothers me, like poor editing or a bad cover (my pet peeves lol), I tell the author personally. Because I know how hard it is to self-publish a book. And how much money and time I put into my books to make them look professional and give my readers an enjoyable reading experience. If readers knew how challenging it can be to produce a good book, I think they would change their opinion, approach and attitude about reading and reviewing books a little. Since I started publishing my own books in English, I’ve become much more appreciative of other indie authors and all they do to make sure we can read their books. Believe me, there are true gems among them, much better than traditionally published books.
What was the first book you published and when you compare it to your last, what changes do you see in your writing?
As I mentioned in my previous answer, Anđeo moga rata (this book has not been published in English), a half-autobiography and half-fiction about the first year of the war as we experienced it in Zagreb, was my first novel. My changes in writing since then have been enormous. If you look at Cruel Summer, it’s like another dimension. If I ever published this book again, I would make some changes and improvements. It was an honest story that just came out of me. And I didn’t calculate much with the style or pay attention to the details and expressions like I do now. But it’s a normal thing for writers to improve their writing skills. To get better and improve over time. It’s a sign of maturity, progress, and our striving to be our best at what we do. And to make our readers, fans, and ourselves happy.
What advice would you give to people who are trying to publish a book? What have been the most difficult aspects of the publishing process for you?
If you are going to self-publish a book, it is going to be hard. Because everything is new to you. Don’t trust those who try to sell you the idea that it’s easy. It is not if you want to do it the right way and be proud of your final product. You have to learn so many things and do everything traditional publishers do with a whole team behind them. You have to write the book and revise it repeatedly until it shines or you can’t bear to look at it anymore. Then you need to hire a professional editor, because there’s no way you’re going to catch all the typos, grammatical errors, or inconsistencies in the editing process yourself. You also need to learn how to format the book yourself if you don’t want to hire someone to do it for you. And you MUST have a great cover, which means you need to hire a professional instead of playing with the cover yourself. Believe me, there’s a huge difference between designing your book cover yourself and having a professional designer do it for you. I’ve always loved this part of the publishing process the most. I love exchanging ideas with my designers. Every collaboration was a creative and uplifting experience that left me happy with the perfect final product. I can say without shame that I am proud of all my book covers. Lots of praise from my readers and fellow authors, as well as a few awards in book cover contests, speak in favor of that.
Once you’re done with all that and have your book published on Amazon and/or a few other retailers, the real challenge comes. Marketing. Selling my books and myself has always been the hardest part for me. Although there is creativity in marketing too, it is time consuming and it takes a lot of dedication and patience if you want to see results and royalties pouring into your bank account. When I say marketing, I don’t just mean posting on your website and social media. That’s just a small part of it. The real thing is finding influencers who see value in what you are offering them and are happy to put the good word out there for your book. Maybe even write a great, honest review, blurb or testimonial that you can use for your marketing. Most of your marketing time will have to be invested in that, along with building your mailing list of fans and constant readers. That’s something I’m still learning. And Amazon ads, which I hope will help me with my book ranks and sales.
Being an indie (self-published) author is a full-time job. Especially if you want to make it a steady source of income. If you want to take this path, be prepared to face hardships and frustrations along the way. That is the price of independence, right?
It seems that you have put your focus on the foreign market when it comes to books, and your blog and website are also in English. What made you decide to do that?
Let’s put it this way, if I gave you the choice to invest the same amount of time, energy, enthusiasm and money in your books to publish them in the Croatian market or the English market, which one would you choose? The small one or the big one? If I’m going to fail, I’m going to fail with a big bang and in style, ha-ha! Besides, I have always and forever seen my books published in English. From the moment I started writing some of them. The books I published in English, I wrote for the English market and not with the thought of publishing them only in Croatian. Therefore, it’s a natural thing to publish them in English now. I had this in mind for years, but I didn’t have the opportunity or the knowledge how to do it. Self-publishing wasn’t my first choice, but I lacked the patience to search endlessly for an agent. That is why I took the advice of my good friend from Puerto Rico, who is also an indie author, and tried my hand at self-publishing. Even if everything stops at this, without thousands of books sold and hundreds of five-star reviews, I’m glad I did it. My books deserve to live their lives in English, they deserve the opportunity for many readers to find them and read their stories. And judging by the response so far, I was right to take that chance and give them that kind of exposure. Publishing them was one thing, distributing them far and wide in the English-speaking market is another thing, a whole new challenge. Therefore, my website and all my social platforms are in English. To help them on this long and bumpy, yet beautifully adventurous journey. It’s a long road, you know. A long, long road. And no one knows what awaits at its end or where its end is.