Jordan Neben was born, raised, and currently lives in Nebraska in the United States. He graduated from high school in Lexington, Nebraska, right in the middle of the state, and went to college at the University of Nebraska nearby. A Lot of Questions, with No Answers? is his first book, though he hopes to write more books in the future.
Tell us the story of your book’s title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?
My book is a collection of six essays I wrote, all focused on different topics. The goal of the book is to hopefully encourage the reader to think more critically and contemplate their beliefs and values, and why they have those beliefs and values. When I was writing the essays for the book I was thinking to myself, “A lot of these questions I’m writing down are ambiguous and open-ended, and a lot of them don’t have clear-cut answers.” Out of that basic observation came the working title for the book. When going through the editing process with Atmosphere Press, I asked the editor I was working with if I should change the title, because at that moment I wasn’t sure I was happy with it. But my editor said he thought that the title was perfect because it perfectly encapsulated what the book was about. I said something to the effect of “Huh, yeah I guess that’s right.” From that point onward the working title became the official title for the book.
How did it feel when you first saw your book cover? Or when you first held your book in your hands?
I listened to a fantastic podcast recently called “Empire” by GoalHanger Podcasts, and the two hosts are both book authors. One of the hosts was talking to another author about the process of writing a book, and all the work that goes into it. This author said, “Writing a book is like reading a book that’s trying to kill you.” Now, my book didn’t require as much intensive research as a “normal” nonfiction book. My book is more of a free-form philosophical exercise. However, it still did require a lot of work, and especially when it came time to edit the book I was thinking to myself, “I already wrote the book, now I have to write more!?” So when I got to see the first copy of the book I mostly felt a sense of relief, like I was on the last half-mile of my first marathon.
Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?
No one really inspired me to write my book in particular. The initial moment of inspiration came when I was at work one day just idly thinking about the subject of what became my first essay and I thought to myself, “I should write this stuff down so I don’t forget it.” Eventually I had enough ideas that I could put those random notes into an entire eighteen-thousand-word essay. At first I thought I could get this essay published in a philosophy magazine or some other publication. But none of the places I reached out to were interested in publishing something of that length. Well, in the course of writing my first essay, I came up with ideas for other essays. I came to the conclusion that rather than try to publish these essays separately, if I could write enough I could combine them all into a book. And that’s how A Lot of Questions, with No Answers? was born.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there are two people who definitely inspired what I wrote about and how I write. The first is Mike Duncan, author of the books The Storm Before the Storm and Hero of Two Worlds and creator of the podcasts History of Rome and Revolutions. Duncan is fantastic at relating some very detailed and very complicated political history, and I have a similarly dry and sarcastic sense of humor, so my writing often sounds similar to Duncan’s (at least it sounds similar to me).
The second big inspiration to me is Dan Carlin, creator of the hugely popular Hardcore History podcast and author of The End is Always Near. I loved The End is Always Near and modeled my book after the style and purpose of Carlin’s work. This might be a sign of how many times I will re-listen to episodes of Hardcore History, because I often found myself coming up with ideas for my book only to find out that Carlin had thought of the same thing long before I did, and relayed those thoughts and ideas in a more eloquent way as well.
What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?
I haven’t worked in any professions or jobs that have been all that exciting, and they haven’t had an impact on me as a writer.
I do have a hobby and passion that is completely absent from my book, however. Anyone who reads my book will likely discover that I have an interest in things like philosophy, political history, military history, and psychology. What they won’t know is that I also love learning about aviation. I have ever since I was a toddler, when my maternal grandfather would allow me to browse his collection of books on aircraft. I’m an avid player of things like Microsoft Flight Simulator, and I’m the kind of person who reads textbooks on aerodynamics for fun.
What was the most rewarding/meaningful part of publishing your book?
Throughout my book (as one might suspect from the title), I ask a lot of questions. But I realized even from the first essay that the book would not be very engaging if it was only a long list of philosophical questions, nor would it be all that thought-provoking. So, I thought of a way to put the questions I was asking into context through some short stories to demonstrate what I was talking about, what I refer to in the book as “hypothetical case studies.” My hope is that the readers can analyze and think about the questions being asked as they read the short stories.
The process of writing these short stories was by far my favorite part of writing the book. Oftentimes while I was writing I would hit a point where I felt like I was making no progress at all. For example, I know there were times when I would waste an entire hour trying to write a single paragraph, and at the end of it I still never felt satisfied with it. That wasn’t the case when I was writing these short stories. Usually I started the short story from a one-sentence outline of what I wanted to write about, and from there I just let my imagination take its course until I reached a point where I was satisfied. Writing these hypothetical case studies was by far my favorite part of making the book, and I hope readers enjoy them as well.
If your book had a soundtrack, what are some songs that would be on it?
I’m sure every writer’s writing process is different. Many times when I was writing I actually found it helpful to listen to music on my headphones to shut out distractions and hopefully get the creative juices flowing when I felt stuck. But I listened to a very particular type of music, because I think certain kinds of music would also be distracting. I chose some music that I could almost flow with mentally, like I was hearing the music without my focus being pulled by it. So, if I had to pick a soundtrack for my book, I’d recommend the music I listened to as I was writing it. That list would include a lot of Pink Floyd and Alan Parsons Project, two of my top five favorite bands. Specific albums would be Echoes, Atom Heart Mother, Animals, The Division Bell, and from Alan Parsons Project, Turn of a Friendly Card, I Robot, and Ammonia Avenue.
What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?
My book is a collection of six philosophical essays covering several different topics like international politics and history, and my goal with the book is to either foster or at least encourage better critical thinking skills. It has become a cliche at this point but our modern society needs more people who can do things like critically analyze current events and the context that got us to the present circumstances. If I did my job right, then hopefully the reader walks away having thought to themselves at least once things like: “That’s an interesting perspective, I never thought of it that way before.” or “That essay made me analyze things in a way I hadn’t before.”
As for what I picture my perfect reader being, I’m going to adopt a saying that my maternal grandfather was famous for in our family. My grandfather, whenever someone asked what his favorite beer was, always said the same thing—“Cold and free.” So who is my perfect reader? If you buy my book and read it, that’s perfect to me.
What new writing projects are you currently working on? Or, other projects that are not writing?
I do have many other ideas for books, and I have begun the preliminary research for my next book. But I think my second book is a long way in the future, both because there is a lot of research that I need to do for it, and I need more time and financial resources to do that research, so I won’t share any details about what this book will be about.
However, a few months after my book was released I began a monthly blog on my website. I try to examine similar subjects and ideas as my book did, only in a much shorter and easier-to-read format. If you’re interested in some thoughtful discussion that can be read in a few minutes I’d recommend checking out my website at jordanneben.com/blog.
How was working with Atmosphere Press? What would you tell other writers who want to publish?
I appreciated my experience at Atmosphere Press, especially for someone who had never published a book before and had no idea how the process worked. I also just appreciated being able to get my foot in the door and get a book published at all. I know a lot of the much bigger publishers sneer at any manuscript unless an agent hands it to them first so it’s nice that publishers like Atmosphere are around to help people get their books out into the world and avoid the obstacles that larger publishers put up.
I’m not sure I have any advice for aspiring authors that they haven’t heard already. It’s certainly more difficult to publish and promote a book when you don’t have a lot of money or connections, so finding success just takes a lot of hard work, perseverance, and luck. What I would say is that if you’re finding it difficult to have some success in writing, try not to be discouraged, or if you do get discouraged to not let that feeling become permanent. I’ve been downcast before about where I am in my writing career. But when that happens I try to remind myself that the more I write, the better the chances that something will be noticed and take off.