An in-depth interview with Justin Lee that’s quite revealing about how he approaches the time and commitment necessary for his writing.
What’s it like to write and publish books with a full-time job and young family?
If my experience is any indication, the candid answer is: it’s not for the lazy, easily stressed or those incapable of structure or routine.
It requires big-picture thinking in a season where every day is engulfed with several small tasks. And for me – to make sure those tasks get done in a way representative of the family man, employee and author I desire to be – nearly every moment of the day is meticulously scheduled.
Exhibits A, B and C: I have a picture frame of Family Goals & Life Priorities sitting on my closet shelf so it’s the first thing I see every day; my office and home desks each have a stack of various project deliverables (writing and otherwise) in the order in which they need to be completed; there’s a countdown calendar on the table next to my computer that keeps me focused on critical dates, such as The Deadly Deal’s publication day (September 12, 2023). And just to emphasize the point, I keep both a handwritten At-A-Glance, Outlook and Gmail calendars in sync at all times to keep my commitments straight.
What surprises people who don’t know me is that isn’t who I am by nature, at least not to that extent. Rather, it’s learned and practiced behavior that feels necessary because there are only so many hours in the day. If I didn’t keep such a tight schedule, my priorities would slip, things wouldn’t get done, and I’d lose sight of the overall balance in life that is so important to me. In that way, ironically, the detailed schedule drives my bigger picture vision.
There’s nothing remarkable about it and people have to figure out what works for them. But no matter what path you take, in the end it takes honesty, commitment and sacrifice. And a whole lot of rinse and repeat. My life in certain seasons can feel like a German train schedule. That might not sound very glorious, and sometimes it isn’t, but to be the kind of dad and employee I want to be while writing on the side, I don’t see any way around it.
For all of my books – The Hubley Case (2018), The Silent Cardinal (2021) and The Deadly Deal (2023), I wrote mainly from 4:30-6:30 in the morning. Then I had breakfast with my family before heading to the office around seven-thirty. A full day of work and I was back home at 6:00 for some more family time and bedtime routines until about 7:30, followed by a little editing until maybe eight. Then I might make it through one sitcom with my wife before heading to bed around 10:00 to start it all over the next day. Taking calls from the car, multi-tasking throughout the day, and constantly moving from one small task to another with the eye on the overall goal has become second nature.
While this balance seems to serve my family, employer and novels for now, it doesn’t come without its sacrifices. Lots of folks wake up to exercise, do daily devotionals or gently ease into the day with a quiet cup of coffee. I don’t afford myself those luxuries. If I exercise, it’s at the end of the night because my body can push through when exhausted better than my mind; my quiet time often results in me falling asleep; and if I’m lucky, breakfast is a rushed granola bar while walking into the office.
It’s not lost on me that when it’s all said and done, I may regret working as much as I do. Have I smelled the proverbial roses? Am I enjoying the evening time with my wife as much as I can when I’m so tired? Is all of this really worth it? Every time such thoughts come into my head, which I think is healthy, I end up reminding myself that I’m serving my purpose, enjoy it, and one day believe I’ll look back on it with silent pride. Right now, I’m too busy thinking about the next deliverable or novel to worry about that.
I’ve also learned something interesting. The less time I have available, the more I get done. I’d suspect that that applies to many others as well. Years ago, there was certainly more unscheduled, leisure time. In college, I used to frit away hours pretending to study just to flirt – and then literally have to go back to study on my own – with the college girl who eventually became my wife. I tented outside for almost four months with my buddies in below-freezing weather to get into Duke basketball games. I was in four after-work sports leagues after college. And I still didn’t get half the work or writing done that I do now. There’s something about forced discipline that simply brings out the efficiency in me.
My life is a writing-family-job-family-writing-bed daily sequence. Is it sustainable forever? Not a chance. Does it mean that sometimes while watching TV with my two kids that I am thinking through the next murder or betrayal in my story? Who doesn’t? Has some of the whimsy (ok, most) in my life has been replaced with spreadsheets and timelines? No doubt about it. But the result has been worth it for me.
Thanks a lot for your support…that’s a big part of what makes the sacrifice worth it. And to those considering balancing the work, family and writing worlds that often don’t overlap much, I hope you found my perspective helpful. Just remember…we don’t usually regret the chances we take in life. Thanks for reading, and I hope you found it beneficial. Please shoot me a note if you have any questions.
J. Lee is the author of the award-winning novel The Hubley Case, The Silent Cardinal and The Deadly Deal. He graduated from Duke University with degrees in Engineering and Sociology, and lives in the western suburbs of Chicago with his family. To learn more about him or his award-winning novels, please visit www.jleethrillers.com.