By Deborah Worchel. Photo by Pam Leypoldt
Listening to award-winning writer Jonathon King talk, it is hard to believe that there was ever a time he didn’t know he was a writer and storyteller. Tall and lanky, it’s easy to see the former basketball player in him. As he selects a table where he has both a clear view of everyone coming and going from the coffee shop and his own back safely against the wall, it’s also easy to see the somewhat hardened crime reporter. As soon as he begins to talk, however, the cadence and descriptive ability of a natural born storyteller emerge, despite his protestations that it took him years to know he had it in him. He is quick to tell me that his first summer in Ocean City, when he lived with his college roommate Scott Erb and the Erb family, was the spark that lit his creative streak and set him down the long path to becoming a writer.
“Scott’s entire family was art inclined,” Jonathon said. “His mother was a school teacher, his sisters were both artistic, and his brother was an art major. I never knew such possibilities existed and I had never seen so many books in one house before in my life. I went on to become a much bigger reader because of that summer.”
His favorite books to read remained those he had been introduced to nearly by accident in a high school class he refers to as “reading for jocks.”
“On game days, the jocks would all be put in a classroom and told to just sit quietly and read to relax before our games. I put my hand into the box of books and pulled out Deep Blue Goodbye, by John MacDonald, a crime novel set in Florida. I thought, ‘Hey, books are kind of cool,’ and so the next week I pulled out another by him. Then I started spending my own money for his stuff.”
A native of Lansing, Michigan, Jonathon has some traits in common with Cuthbert, the main character in his new historical fiction novel, The Sindia Promise: Life After The Shipwreck, which debuts this month.
“Like Cuthbert, I am an unapologetic working class guy. If I am not working, I am not happy.” He holds his hands out for emphasis and continues, “There is a huge part of the Ocean City population that does that, the same thing, especially the year round population. That’s my background, and that’s what I connect with. But I think every writer does that, spills himself out onto the page.”
Similarly, the main character, Max Freeman, in the eponymous series which made Jonathon King a name in the writing world, is based on a real person whom Jonathon knew and worked with during his time as a crime reporter.
He rolled his eyes a little and said, “I once had an editor ask me, ‘Now, would he really do that?’ and I could say, ‘Well, yes he would, because I have seen it happen.” He pauses, take a sip of coffee and continues, “There’s very little in my books that I didn’t actually see. I try to change the names to protect the innocent.”
Prior to becoming a novel writer, or even a crime writer for the newspaper, Jonathon dropped out of college.
“After a second summer on the Ocean City Beach Patrol with Scott, I just decided I wasn’t going back to school in the fall when he did,” said Jonathon. “So I started my wandering phase, picking up odd jobs across the country from September to June.”
Two things remained constant during this time. He always knew he would return to Ocean City for the summer as a member of the OC Beach Patrol, and as he traveled, the first thing he did in each new town was read the local newspaper.
Though it may have surprised him at the time, what happened next for Jonathon now seems to make perfect sense. He decided to stay in Ocean City for the winter and got a job painting houses.
“Not exactly art,” he laughs, “I still didn’t know I had that in me yet. But that winter, I did see an ad in the Ocean City Sentinel for a newspaper writer’s class at the community center. I thought to myself, ‘I bet I can do this’ and I signed up.”
Soon after, he applied to Temple University for journalism and ended up in a class which led to his first job in the field.
“I was the lone 24 year old in a class with 18 year olds,” he explains, “So when the professor asked who would like a job as a copy boy for the Philly Daily News, every hand went up.” He tilts his head and smirks a bit, “But when the professor proceeded to tell us that the job was five days a week from 11pm to 7am, my hand was the only hand still raised.”
On nights that the police reporter called out sick, Jonathon ended up doing his job as well. Eventually, the crime reporter job became his own, and he found himself walking into true life crime scenes and mysteries that he had previously only read about in books. Upon graduation from Temple, he was offered a job as a crime reporter in Florida, took it, and spent 20 years covering crime stories in the sunshine state.
Throughout his career, Jonathon continued reading crime and suspense fiction. Once again, he began to think to himself, “I think I could do that,” so he worked out a deal to take his vacation time for 1999 and 2000 all at once. After packing his car with supplies, he headed to the mountains of North Carolina where relatives owned a summer cabin that he could use for the months of January and February.
“I took my key out the of ignition when I parked and I didn’t put it in again until my vacation time was up,” he said. The product of that vacation time was Jonathon’s first novel, The Blue Edge of Midnight, titled in a deliberate nod to John MacDonald. It won the Edgar Award for best first novel.
With seven Max Freeman novels under his belt, as well as a historical fiction novel set in Florida, Jonathon returned to the place that had ignited the creative spark in him so many years ago in order to begin work on a new novel.
“The turn of the century is my favorite time period as well as a pivotal time in the history of Ocean City,” he said. “I immediately thought of the Sindia. It is such an historical icon here, so many are fascinated by the ship and the stories that accompany it. I didn’t want to rehash those though, so I needed something new. And since I am a fiction writer, I can be inspired by history, but not bound by it.” He grins mischievously, sips his coffee, and adds, “Since I am also a mystery writer, I needed a dead body. In real history, no one dies in the Sindia. We all know that, but this is a work of fiction and the mystery begins with the sea bag owned by the dead officer.”
The dead officer is not named for a real crew member, nor are the two main characters in the novel, but the novel does contain characters inspired by real people as well as many Ocean City landmarks.
In keeping with his need to be close to a story, perhaps the legacy of years as a crime reporter, Jonathon rented a winter condo steps from the site of the crash on the 17th Street beach during the first winter he spent researching the novel and beginning to write it. As he was finishing it, he rented a room with a view of the Lifesaving Station on the corner of 4th Street and Atlantic Avenue. The Lifesaving Station plays a central role in the novel and Jonathon wanted to be able to look out the window and see the story as he wrote it. He hopes those who read the novel will all find something in it that resonates with them.
“It is the job of the writer to create scenes the reader sees in his head. Each reader will see it a little differently, but I think if you come to Ocean City, there is something in this book that you will recognize, even though it is set 100 years in the past… the feeling of walking down the beach at night, of falling in love with someone under the stars on that beach, the first time you walked into Shriver’s Salt Water Taffy, the experience of being on the Boardwalk, all of these things are timeless and it is my job to convey that timelessness in my writing.”