All Books Are Self-Help Books

Earlier in the year, the sociopathic North Korean regime released video footage of two citizens, a pair of brothers, being interviewed about their allegiance to their state, and especially their allegiance to their current chief sociopath, Kim Jong-un. Both men were citizens of North Korea, both spoke the language fluently, and both appeared content with the direction that their society was headed.

That’s weird enough. The really weird thing is that they are white.

Their names are Ted and James Dresnok. They’re the sons of an American defector to North Korea, James Dresnok, Sr. The Washington Post covered the story here, and the elder Dresnok has been the subject of an excellent documentary, Crossing the Line. I found his story so compelling, in fact, that I used him as the model for William Yaris, a supporting character in The North Korea Onyx.

Part of me, the irrational part, wants to find these two brothers and tell them it’s time to come back to the West. After all, it feels like they belong here—maybe in a garden apartment in Chelsea, in a house in Houston, in a suburb of Toronto. Another part of me refuses to believe the truth. Their lives must be fake. How could two Caucasian men exist in such a xenophobic society as North Korea? In a place that the late Christopher Hitchens memorably described as “a nation of racist dwarves”?

The answer is simple: Their lives aren’t fake. They never were in the West. Those are their true lives, the lives they were born into.

The same way that you and I were born into ours.

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Most people don’t pursue meaningful lives for two reasons.

1) They are afraid to change.
2) They don’t know what they would change into.

The first reason, the fear of change, is well known. All of us dig ourselves into little ruts for one reason or another. Some of us accept one promotion after another, imprisoned by an ever-increasing salary that we don’t need. (The opening scene of Idiocracy painted it well—a young couple is going to have a baby only if the stock market recovers. I call this the timidity of the overcivilized.) Some of us have lost jobs but can’t yet see the bigger picture—that globalization is slowly eroding certain parts of Western economies. There’s no point in trying to climb a ladder if it’s leaning against a crumbling wall.

But the second reason is more insidious. Not knowing what you want to do is really a crisis of the soul. And it’s hard, really hard, to help someone find her own passion. Modern psychotherapists view everything as a problem that can be solved, including personality disorders, but if you’ve been around this blue marble for a while, you know that’s not always possible. I prefer the way that religion takes a darker view of things. Religions teach us that some of us simply won’t ever know ourselves, not unless we experience some real suffering—and even then, there’s no guarantee of change. (Related: If you’re interested in a psychotherapist’s view of evil, I’d recommend the book People of the Lie by M. Scott Peck. It’s fascinating.) As a storyteller, I’ve learned this same lesson. Purposelessness is deadly in fiction—the main character must always want something. It’s okay to be confused, but not to be purposeless.

Speaking realistically, the only serious obstacle to the pursuit of change is dependents. Maybe you have a sick parent. Maybe you have a young child. (The immune system reaches full flower at age five, so it may not be feasible to take your tyke on any expeditions deep into the Amazon until then. And this also explains the seven-year itch, if you think about it.) Maybe you have a troubled brother who needs you psychologically. Maybe a pet. It may not be feasible to just up and leave for a month.

That’s Ainsley Walker’s role. She travels for you when you can’t do it yourself. She inspires you to live for the day when you can explore, even in little snatches. Ironically, the segment of the public least likely to join Ainsley Walker on her adventures—young males, who generally read very little—are the ones who probably act the most like her. They’re the risk-takers, the ones who die for stupid reasons. Ainsley tends to take foolish risks as well, and she’s got deep reasons for that, which will be explored in future titles.

Meanwhile, it’s a big world. Let’s go see it all.

The North Korea Onyx: Preorder Now

North Korea OnyxThe North Korea Onyx, the eighth and latest Ainsley Walker Gemstone Travel Mystery, will be published on Monday,  April 25.

Click on link to preorder at Amazon  and Apple.


In America, a Korean immigrant church teeters on the edge of bankruptcy.

The minister has discovered the location of an onyx teacup, an historical treasure that had belonged to his grandfather before the division of the Korean peninsula. Recovering it will save their church. The only catch—

It’s in North Korea. And they need someone willing to retrieve it.


In her most thrilling travel mystery yet, Ainsley arrives in Pyongyang under the pretext of running a marathon—

—only to end up running for her life.

Racing across the peninsula, she sees the hidden truth about the North Korean people, their deep suffering, and their resistance. Fighting hunger and exhaustion, Ainsley summons every last drop of her resourcefulness, endurance, and inner strength to stay ahead of the regime—

—and to stay alive.

From an author who worked on the foreign desk of The Washington Post—

—comes a travel mystery that will change the way you see the world.


Fundamentalism Vs. Art

The great pop group Tears For Fears has been dormant for a decade now, but one of their best songs is called “Sketches of Pain”. It was never a hit, or even a single, and it was released over twenty years ago on the Raoul and the Kings of Spain album.

It’s a remarkable song for many reasons, but especially for the way that the lyrics describe how fundamentalists fail to understand art.

Some cry shame

Some cry shame

We tore them apart

We failed to imagine


God might claim

God might claim

The works of art

We failed to imagine


Great wide stretches of canvas

Signed by a godless name

Strange bright colors of madness

Only a fool would frame


Sketches of pain

Sketches of pain

I’ve never seen pop music touch on fundamentalism so precisely.

Let’s define a fundamentalist: He is an individual who’s feels that he’s been denied some sort of path to the future. He comes in all shapes and sizes, from Christian to Muslim to Jewish to white to black to Asian to rich to poor. He sees himself as a victim of modernity. He is above all desperate.

To cope with his lack of personal progress, the fundamentalist seizes upon the idea of glory days. He comes to believe in a mythical time when everything was somehow better, a time when lollipops grew on trees and unicorns pranced through fields and people who got married stayed married and going to religious service was deeply satisfying and not at all obligatory. A time when everybody lived hip-deep in disposable income and all the children were above average. The fundamentalist feeds himself these lies by losing himself in old texts, often interpreting them literally and verbatim.

The fundamentalist is a blunted soul. He is a flattened nailhead driven deeply into the aged wood of a mythical past. He can’t be pulled out of that imaginary world.

Most importantly, he can’t understand the act of artistic creation, because it doesn’t share this same worldview.

As Steven Pressfield wrote in The War of Art, “Fundamentalism and art are mutually exclusive.”

That said, there are some things that tradition gives us that we shouldn’t lose sight of. Two-parent homes, for instance, are undeniably the best way to build strong people and therefore maintain a strong civilization. The data (in the United States, at least) supports this. Likewise, recipes, created through centuries of experimentation, shouldn’t be abandoned. The Czechs were forced to do exactly this under Soviet rule, as Anthony Bourdain explained in a long-ago episode. And don’t get a writer like me started on the value of old books.

So the fundamentalists do have a point. Once in a while.

But in the field of art, they’re struck dumb. While the humanist artist sees the world as a constant churn, maybe even as a gently inclined slope of progress, the fundamentalist has a very different shape in mind. The fundamentalist sees a downward arrow. He is willing to go to the grave with his single inflexible belief that we humans have fallen from a higher state to a lower state.

This is, to be plain, total crap. The Christian story of The Fall has been long debunked by modern science. We humans are made of carbon chains, the same stuff as dirt. Our cerebral cortices show that abstract thought has been a relatively recent development.

As a species, we’re not plunging away from a deity because of poor decisions. We humans—at least, some of us—are building our way up to that deity for the very first time.

In her adventures, Ainsley Walker represents this impulse in all of us. The desire to grow, change, transform, and remake the world into something new and better.  The desire for Something Else. Not clinging to the past out of fear, but carrying the past with us as we build into the future.

It’s a big world. Let’s go see it all.

The Oxford Diaries: A Travelogue

For fans of Downton Abbey, Harry Potter, J.R.R. Tolkien, and everything traditionally British…

Eccentric dons. Black dinner gowns. Medieval libraries.

At age nineteen, J.A. Jernay touched down in England, an innocent travelling abroad. The destination—

Oxford University.

Plunging into a thousand years of English literary and cultural history, J.A. Jernay leads the reader through daily life at the world’s third-oldest university. From drinking at famous pubs to punting on the Cherwell, from formal dining halls to formal debates, from ruined castles to magical wardrobes—

The Oxford Diaries is a romantic snapshot of undergraduate life at an ancient institution.

From an author who worked on the foreign desk of The Washington Post…

… who was a finalist in a prestigious short story contest sponsored by the estate of F. Scott Fitzgerald…

… comes a travelogue that will carry you into a world of literature, history, fantasy, and tradition.

Approximately 23,000 words.

Now available wherever ebooks are sold.

World Cup 2014 Final Sale: The Argentina Rhodochrosite, only $.99

Starting today and running through Monday, July 14, The Argentina Rhodochrosite (An Ainsley Walker Gemstone Travel Mystery) is on sale for only $.99.  

The reason: This Sunday, Argentina plays Germany in the 2014 World Cup Final.

U.S. Amazon customers can buy the book here, and wherever ebooks are sold.

A famously temperamental soccer star has just suffered a terrible loss: Someone has stolen his favorite necklace. 

No ordinary piece of jewelry, this rhodochrosite had belonged to his birth mother, a woman he has never met. She had ‘disappeared’ during the famous Argentine dirty war of the nineteen-seventies. 

This superstar really wants it back. And he refuses to play soccer again until someone finds it. 

It’s shaping up to be a national tragedy, until the arrival of… 


Fresh off her amethyst adventure, Ainsley immediately embarks on a journey into the brash heart of Argentinian futból culture. 

Running from nightclubs in historic mansions to seedy tango parlors… 

…from impoverished shantytowns to the grand landscape of Patagonia … 

…Ainsley discovers glamour, danger, excitement, and the dark secrets of a country’s hidden past. 

It’s a big world.  Let’s go see it all.  


New Release: Girl Seeking Farm (A Finding Home Novel)

Journeys take many forms.  Some of us, such as Ainsley Walker, embark on explorations of the exotic, the dangerous, the unfamiliar.  

For others, however, a journey is a return to something they’d loved, a place once known well but long forgotten.

GIRL SEEKING FARM, my newest book, is one of those other kinds of travel stories.  It’s the first title in the Finding Home series. 


For fans of Jennifer Weiner, Emily Giffin, and Blake Shelton…

After losing both her financier boyfriend and her internship at a fashion magazine, Jessica feels her chick-lit life in the big city is beginning to fall apart.  Then…


… changes everything.  Her grandmother has suffered a stroke, and the family farm needs Jessica’s help to survive. 

Ditching the fancy heels, Jessica soon finds that life in the country isn’t quite the cakewalk that she’d remembered—not with new responsibilities to meet, new technologies to learn, and new battles for respect.

And her most difficult task of all … will be facing the painful secrets of her own troubled past.


Roll up your sleeves … and begin a journey into the story of one woman who longed for a different, more traditional way of life. 

It’s down-to-earth.  It’s real.


A contemporary women’s novel by J.A. JERNAY, the author of the Ainsley Walker Gemstone Travel Mystery series.  Approximately 51,000 words.

It’s available from Amazon, Nook, iTunes, and Kobo.  Buy it now.

It’s a big world.  Let’s go see it all.

Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

I never understood that maxim until I began to research The Argentina Rhodochrosite.  During my reading, I discovered one particularly weird story about the “dirty war” of the nineteen-seventies.


This story featured a woman who’d been captured by Videla’s secret government, tossed into prison, and tortured.  By itself, that’s rather pedestrian, an unfortunate situation that was repeated thirty thousand times during that decade.   The banality of war, as the saying goes.

But the difference is that this woman fell in love with her torturer.

Now, that was interesting.  That was the stuff of good stories.  I grew more interested.

As I read on, I learned that this bizarre duo’s emotional tango went even further.   Upon her release, the happy couple had married and together left Argentina.  They had run off to India or Africa – can’t remember which – and eventually converted to Buddhism.  Presumably they were both trying to heal some psychic scars.  Eventually they had divorced, and the former torturer had become a monk, while the woman had remarried a rich man.  That was all.

And that’s where the story lost me.

It defies all reason.  See, the dark secret about human consciousness is that we can’t tolerate very much reality.  Real life is messy, it doesn’t feature character arcs, it doesn’t have setups and payoffs, it doesn’t offer dependably comedic or tragic endings—it only has bizarre randomness that leaves us scratching our heads.

Yet what most of us want from our stories is internal coherence, a clear lesson.  Because life so often teaches us nothing.

And so, for my own Argentina novel, I cut this woman’s story short.  Falling in love with a torturer is about as much as our limited human imaginations will admit.

Think about the irony for a moment.  To write acceptable fiction—the one discipline that’s supposed to welcome wild flights of fancy—I actually had to rein in reality, tamp it down, make it more palatable for mass consumption.

I’m not the first writer to notice this paradox, of course.  After the movie Scarface opened more than thirty years ago, then-screenwriter Oliver Stone was pilloried for his excessively violent portrayal of a drug-war disemboweling.  The scene involved a chainsaw, a captive, and a hotel bathtub.   It’s ludicrously violent, many said, over the top.

What they didn’t know was that Stone had drawn that scene from a real-life drug-gang murder in South Beach, and that he had actually reduced the level of violence.  (If you’ve seen that movie, you’ll certainly find that hard to believe, but it’s true.  The fictional version still made my stomach churn, and I hope never to see it again.  The Ainsley Walker stories are violence-free for a reason.)

Still, that’s life.  It’s not beautiful, it’s not sensible, it’s not even clear.  It just … is.  If you want sensible endings, read more books, watch more television.

And then, when you tire of the tidiness of fiction, remember that it’s a big world.  Let’s go see it all.