Trudging through standing water in the midst of a rainstorm, I felt a bit like the mariner who had once lived in the residence at Edgartown on Marthas Vineyard, Massachusetts. Beneath an arch, I pushed through a garden gate, past a long wooden table and chairs, pots of flowers taking a beating from the downpour, up a ramp, and into the French door as I had been instructed.

He must have noticed my arrival before my fingers ever touched the door handle. I had no sooner stepped inside of the houseinn reallythan a smiling face approached, welcoming me to Noepe. Introductions commenced, the delicious aroma of something from the kitchen wafting through the warm interior calling him back to tend to dinner.

Jack Sonni Picture taken by Craig Clement
Jack Sonni
Picture taken by Craig Clement

That was how I met Jack Sonni.

That is generally how all of the residents taking part in the Writing Residency at Marthas Vineyard meet Jack. He is the on-site writer in residence, official greeter, and house manager at Noepe Center for Literary Arts. Jack was, is, and will be a whole lot more.

You may recognize his name from his time with the band, Dire Straits. Here’s a clip–Jack is the one in the red coat!

So, what is a rocknroll guitarist and vocal stylist doing as writer-in-residence at Noepe? Thats what youre about to find out.

Picture by Craig Clement
Picture by Craig Clement

RJ: Jack, thank you for joining us today. You already know that when I do an interview I dig around in the archives of my subject. The first thing I found about you was that you were born John Thomas Sonni, which is a lovely name. How did you become Jack?

JS:  I was named after my Italian grandfather, Giovanni Tommaso, which translates in English to John Thomas.  It was my own search for who I was that led to my adopting ‘Jack’ as my given name when I started college.  All of my ‘rock idols’ had these catchy names: David Bowie, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger.  Going by Johnny Sonni wasn’t rock’n’roll enough for me!

RJ: Are those the musicians influencing you most?

JS:  Bowie, definitely.  I think he’s amazing.  The Stones, for sure. Also Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Pete Townsend.  And my dad passive-aggressively pushed the idea of my becoming a musician.  Although he wasn’t a fan of rock’n’roll, he bought me a guitar when I was thirteen years old, and supported my lessons, perhaps as a vehicle of his own fantasies.

RJ: Was that your main interest during your formative years?

JS:  You know, I really loved reading—the escape it offered.  I wasn’t interested in sports and we moved around a lot because my dad was in the military.  During high school I actually attended three different schools in three different states.  Reading always grounded me.  The Sword and the Stone was my favorite book.  I’d read it again and again.  At some point I just knew I was going to pull the sword from the stone and I was going to become King of whatever it was I was doing.  That was the fantasy anyway!

RJ: At what age did you discover writing in addition to reading?

JS:  I was in third grade and our class was going to put on a play of Ali Baba and The Forty Thieves, a story I loved, so I volunteered to write the script.  I’m not sure why I thought I could do it other than I just wanted to be the one to tell the story.  That was validating for me, but it didn’t make my mom all that happy! She was the one who had to transcribe my writing, type it all out and format it for the mimeograph machine! Then make all the copies and collate sets of the play for everyone. Wasn’t all that easy making copies back then and I can remember her frowning at the extra work and stress.

Picture of Jack Sonni by Craig Clement
Picture of Jack Sonni by Craig Clement

All I wanted to do was sit under palm trees and write books. ̶ Jack Sonni

RJ: And you did become king of sorts as you performed with Dire Straits on stage in 23 countries and with Live Aid alongside other artists such as Sting. What was that like?

JS:  “What was it like being a rock star,” is actually the first line of my memoir!  It’s the first question most people ask when they hear about my past.  You know Renee, I’d been in New York City for almost ten years chasing the rock star dream and it nearly killed me — literally. So I quit. In my head, it was done. I was working behind the counter in a guitar shop and had decided to go back to school for my main passion—writing.  Fordham had accepted me already.  Then just a couple days after I received my acceptance letter,  I got a call from Mark Knopfler with Dire Straits to come and join him on the road.  I was literally in the store one day, on the road the next. Caught up in the whirlwind, the heady seduction of performing on stage with my idols was a powerful thing.

But to answer the question—being a rock star is everything you imagine it to be and more.  I got to live out every last one of my rock’n’roll fantasies.  It’s when you are no longer being a rock star—once you’ve been one—that can mess your head up! Like flying first class for a while and suddenly being kicked down to coach…or the Greyhound bus!

RJ: So what happened that brought that to an end?

JS:  Mark changed his mind about his course, which inevitably altered mine.  I remained in Australia after the tour was over and the band all went back to England. I was enjoying the lifestyle of Sydney, Melbourne, Perth.  I met my future ex-wife there.  Surfing, playing music, getting my own band together, kept me busy.  Then I got a call from record label executive friend of mine who convinced me to move to Los Angeles to pursue a solo deal. That didn’t happen for a multitude of reasons and I really lost my taste for the business. By the time the girls were born, I knew I didn’t want to put them through the roller-coaster life of being a working musician because the struggle never really ends unless you’re on of the very lucky few.  I found I was good at ‘working up ads’—another form of writing I suppose—and became a marketing manager for a company that made guitar gear which led to an eighteen year career.

RJ: When did you leave marketing?

JS:  I wasn’t happy and hated going to work every day. Then the girls graduated high school, dad got ill, a close friend died from cancer.  I decided to go after my best life—NOW!  It had that kind of urgency.  One of the last conversations with my dad was with me telling him I intended to quit my job, sell my house, and go write.  And he said, “Do what makes you happy!”

Jack's daughters
Left to Right: Silas, Hendrix, and Merrick in front. Caitlin and Nadine in back

RJ: And your daughterstwinsare twenty-six now. Can you share some insight on what it was like raising twin daughters?

JS:  Let’s see…what was it like? It was the best of times. It was the worst of times! As a single dad raising two girls I certainly acquired a great appreciation for what single mothers go through. My girls, Caitlin and Nadine, weighed less than 3 pounds when they were born. They spent six weeks in Neonatal ICU until they were about double that weight and could come home. BUT they were still incapable of going much longer than 3 hours without feeding for almost six months! So they were waking up several times throughout the night keeping their mother and I in a perpetual state of sleep deprivation for six months.

I was completely out of my mind! I’m fairly certain it’s what led to the end of the marriage and my-ex leaving the girls to my primary care a short time later. Naturally, there were other complications in it but not going to get into that here. Suffice to say, it wasn’t easy on anyone involved.

But watching my babies grow into beautiful, intelligent caring women both incredible mothers of their own now – the greatest reward in my life. We have a relationship that I cherish deeply. Girls are so sweet and easy when they’re little. Playing quietly with each other and generally a joy. Girls are fantastic because dad is a god in their eyes! That is until about 12 or 13 when suddenly seemingly overnight things went from “Oh Daddy, you’re the best!” and getting endless cuddles and hugs to well, let’s say this – all I saw for about four years was eye rolling and that head thing where it looks like they’ve lost any muscle control and sways on their necks in a figure eight. Along with a tongue click and that exasperated huff. But we survived and they came back from whatever dimension the aliens who took my little girls away to and we’ve been fab ever since! We talk – well, text because god forbid they actually use the phone as a phone and call – pretty much every day.

Without exaggeration my girls are the reason I’m still on this planet. In my darkest hours and there have been some very very dark ones, what stayed my hand and kept me from taking my own life was the realization that it was not my life to take. It belonged to them. I was responsible not only for them, but to them.

RJ: Is that why you chose the stones for the skull ring you wear in the colors of your daughters eyes? Jack's ring

JS: The one I wear was made by silversmith known for his “outlaw” jewelry and has done work for Keith Richards, although not the exact skull ring he wears that was fashioned by an artist in London.  He has his reason for wearing it – this quote from an interview in 1988.

And this {points to his skull ring} is to remind me that were all the same under the skin. The skull it has nothing to do with bravado and surface bullshit.”—Keith Richards 

I took to wearing a skull ring in my corporate working days to remind me that, regardless of how buried it felt at the time, there was another me under the surface. When designing it, I wanted to have elements that represented my daughters – to always remind me of my obligation to them should the darkness return – so the eyes are stones the color of my daughters’ eyes.  On the sides – in gold – there are stars, encircled by trailing flames – two comets representing my girls – the lights that travel through my darkest hours.

Picture by Craig Clement
Picture by Craig Clement

“Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of other people.”—Carl Jung

RJ: How did you wind up at Noepe?

JS:  I was in New York, working on a memoir.  A friend suggested Martha’s Vineyard Writing Residency, I applied, and was accepted.  I had gotten an agent quickly and then nothing happened.  The agency had one idea for the memoir, the publisher had an idea of what it should look like, and I had another.  It was never my intention to write the typical, ‘sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll,’ memoir, and initially they seemed excited that it was something different.  For me, the fantasy I lived with Dire Straits was an intermission in my ‘real’ life.  It was only a chapter.  I feel incredibly lucky and fortunate to have experienced it, but it was a painful ending and my heart was broken for a long time.  It was brutal reliving it.

In the end, all they really wanted was the same old story, which wasn’t and isn’t mine. But having the time to focus on it at Noepe, unburdened with the shackles of everyday life, just cruising through memories and cranking out pages, was priceless.  I still have it, and will likely do something with it at another point in my life.  But it became clear that in order to remain authentic about my life, it just wasn’t the right time to release it, and maybe not the right team.

RJ: Would you have rather not have had the experience at all?

JS:  Good question.  I have asked myself that many times.  I went through a major identity crisis, asking:  Who am I?  It was like becoming suddenly invisible, failing to exist at all.  And part of the anger and disappointment was in myself for not following my creative writing dreams.

RJ: But it isnt too late to do that. You read for us from a post on your blog titled: This is Why I Write. Where did that inspiration come from?

Because what is remembered is less important than the why these moments return. ̶ Jack Sonni

JS:  I had lost interest in finishing the memoir, but the lack of completing it made me question everything.  What is the point?  Why did I turn my back on John Thomas and became Jack?  What made me change my name?   What was behind the need to become something – or someone – other than who I am? Why can’t I finish this book?  So, I took Justen’s Monastic Writing workshop on the vineyard—the same one you took in Italy.  And I knew then I had to write; to make new stuff.  Why do I write?  I scribbled that question on my white board and the piece came together.

RJ: You are around writers all of the time. They come to Noepe for workshops during the summer, or for residencies during the spring and fall. What is your favorite part of watching their process as they acclimate to the environment at Marthas Vineyard and the influence of other writers?

JS:  I love watching the first twenty minutes after people arrive; wide-eyed amazement at the physical beauty of the inn.  For the first two or three days they walk around, making coffee, transitioning into permission to write.  It’s a fantasy, an unencumbered time and space to write.  I watch as they find their space and sit for hours, just cranking away.  And then, about three days before the end, the pressure kicks in.  They realize it is about to be over.

RJ: (Laughing) I dont think I had any trouble transitioning.

JS:  I don’t know.  I recall you hunting for that perfect space in the house that felt right to you, and the settling in of the realization that writing was all you had to do once you found it.

Jack at Ag Fair

RJ: You are right about that! And you were great about offering maps, bus schedules, carpooling. Is that part of your description as House Manager?

JS:  Yes, of course.  I’m incredibly fortunate to have a place to come and write.  In exchange, I can take a load off of Justen Ahren so that he can focus on Noepe.  Because of my experience, I can help with some of the marketing to help grow awareness of what he’s created here, which continues to grow.  We share a common vision, and I love giving tours, creating a sociable environment, engendering a community spirit.  I’m the on-premises face, and I do some cooking, which is lots of fun, especially the nights I cook with Justen for the welcome dinner.

Jack and nan's pizza         Jack Sonni demonstrating pizza toss

RJ: Ours was wonderful, by the way. And you even taught my group to make pizzas, including the dough, using a pizza peel and a stone. So much fun! And it was such a great way to end our session at Noepe. Did your cookbook, Gatherings, spring from this passion?

 gatherings cookbook

JS:  I cook for the same reasons I play music or write. It’s an artistic expression and an excuse to gather people. Well, that and the fact that I like to eat really good food and realized at an early age if I didn’t learn to make it myself I was doomed to a lifetime of bad food! For years, it was a way for me to relax after working my corporate. Come home, crack a bottle of wine, and start making dinner for me and the girls. I also discovered when they were little – as early as 5 or 6 – that they would eat anything they were involved in cooking. And I mean anything!! I was determined not to raise picky eaters.  So I had two small step stools and they were my prep and sous chefs!

Jack's pizza

Jack Sonni in the kitchen

I’ve been spoiled by having a circle of friends for which eating well is a priority and includes the chefs and winemakers I profiled in Gatherings.   But our group includes some truly talented “kitchen hackers” who can hold their own alongside the pros! I thought I was a decent chef but after years of living in Healdsburg CA (in the middle of Sonoma wine country) the bar is pretty damn high. But it taught me a lot – most importantly to relax and have fun in the kitchen. It’s like music in so many ways – you learn some basic rules and techniques then improvise and turn you creativity loose. Some stuff works…some can be spectacular failures but it’s still better than take out from fast food joints!!

My pizza making started because I moved to LA and couldn’t find any decent pizza so started out to learn how to make pizza the way I liked it – which is in a fairly classic Neapolitan style. I love good pizza – it is definitely one of the courses in my final meal. So is fried chicken. Something I am determined to get down before I die!! I’m a big fan of southern cuisine – cajun as well – and my travels to Mississippi and Tennessee have been driven largely by food!

Gathering for holiday meals was a big part of my growing up. I have huge extended families on both of my parents’ sides–one Italian, and the other, Swedish and Polish.  At Christmas and Thanksgiving there were so many people gathered, the dinners were held in the local fire hall! So cooking up a meal and gathering folks is in my bones. I love the process of cooking and then sitting around a table, drinking and chatting. My goal was to have my home be a salon for artists and smart, interesting people. Falling into Noepe feeds that part of my soul in a big way!

RJ: You know Jack, I bestowed you with a title after that meal; Gentleman Chef. I saw you at the printer early in the morning, printing off recipes for us to take away. You brought down scales for measuring flour, your own stone. I thought your investment of time and energy was generous and gracious. That aside, can you tell us what you are working on now? Are you playing music still? What are you writing?

JS:  I play music for fun and as an excuse to gather friends. The idea of being serious about any kind of music career is a tiny speck in my review mirror. I still love playing as much as I always have and truly enjoy getting musicians together to play the odd gig now and then. But I’m MUCH looser about it now and have been for a while. I have absolutely zero to prove to anyone when it comes to playing rock n roll. There was a period where I felt I had to protect my reputation or live up to some expectations, but that’s long gone as well Outside of the gigs I did in Italy with other musicians who’d toured with the band at different periods which was a very strange, wonderfully weird experience, I’ve gone in a different direction from the ‘Straits Zone’.

My new writing project is a novel. Working in fiction is what I’d wanted to do from the beginning and the memoir was a sidetrack. I learned a ton by working on it and maybe it’s what I needed to do to get to the book I’m working on now. The story is inspired by some things I discovered about my family background and learned on my travels cross country – especially my time in Mississippi. I’ve taken to describing it as “The Godfather” meets “Justified” – the cast of characters include immigrant coal miners, bootleggers, mafiosi, juke joint blues musicians and a beautiful Italian woman with a mysterious past! Set in 1927 it follows a pair of half-brothers running from a crime one committed in Western Pennsylvania as they travel south through the Mississippi Delta trying to get to New Orleans but run straight into the Great Flood of 1927. There’s a robbery plot complete with double and maybe even triple crosses and a few surprises that should make it a fun read and a great movie!! That is if I can get it out of my head and onto the page!!

Jack Sonni picture by Craig Clement
Jack Sonni picture by Craig Clement

RJ: I am afraid you probably know what is coming next. I’m going to ask for an excerpt, fully aware that this is still a work-in-progress. So how about it Jack? Will you share something from your mystery/suspense novel?

JS:   It’s very much a work in progress! I’m just now starting to write after taking about 4 months to research, gather notes and put the storyline together – which I know will change as I let the characters speak and guide me while writing. And I’m not sure if it can be placed in the mystery/suspense category. I see it more in line with crime fiction and I aspire to write something in the vein of American Noir writers like Tom Franklin, Larry Brown, Dennis Woodrell, Don Winslow and Denis Johnson – not that I’d dare compare or place myself in their company! But I certainly wouldn’t refuse a spot on the same shelf as any one of those guys!

RJ:  Dear readers, you get to be the first people to peek at Jack’s fabulous novel-in-progress.  After much pleading, he agreed to offer up a couple of paragraphs.  I’m so excited for him, but even more so at being able to share this tidbit with you:

photo by Craig Clement
photo by Craig Clement

Excerpt:

Corky watched in stunned silence as Sal wiped the bloody blade on a bar rag. He hadn’t seen the stiletto in his hand when his half-brother stepped towards the sheriff who now lay on the juke joint kitchen floor, blood bubbling from the hole in his throat. The man coughed a shower of red and died.

“Jesus, Sal,” Corky said, his voice a rasped whisper. He knew but he never expected to witness the type of work Sal did for his mafiosi bosses.

Serafina stood frozen, braced against the closed kitchen door, eyes bouncing from Corky to the dead sheriff to Sal and back again. The music, and the noise of the crowd dancing, thumped against the walls.

Sal dropped the bloodied rag on the sheriff’s chest and then, stepping across the body, bent to pick up two of the canvas bags of money from the distillery robbery. He tossed one each to Sal and Serafina, grabbed the last one and walked to the back door.

He opened the door, bowed and sweeping his arm across his waist, directed the others outside.

Corky nodded to Serafina who rushed through the doorway. The teenager followed, passing Sal without meeting the assassin’s eyes. Closing the door, Sal stepped to stand under the tin porch roof with the waiting pair. He pulled the collar of his coat to his ears, and without a word between them, the trio of Italians walked into the pouring rain of the Mississippi night.

RJ:  Wow!  Jack, I’m hooked already.  As soon as this is published, I want to feature it again right here!  But for today, I have one last question. If you could spend one hour with anyone, from anywhereliving or deceasedwho would it be and why?

JS:  I’m going to cheat and pick one of each!

Living — I’d love to hang out with Bob Dylan. I’m a big fan of his writing and fascinated by how he’s dealt with his fame by creating a persona in his music and writing voice that exists out of time, really. He’s become this larger than life legendary character – quintessentially American – someone like Jesse James where the legend has completely overshadowed the real person.

As far as someone from the past — Carl Jung. I am so impressed by his writings. His openness to the spiritual and magical amazes me.  And I know I could just sit and listen to him expound on anything.  Actually – I’d like to have them both over for dinner! But if I had to choose one. Mr Jung. He had an incredible mind.

RJ: As do you, John Thomas (Jack) Sonni! Thank you for sharing your story. It is truly like no other! 

Check out his website!  Facebook!  Twitter!

**Renee Johnson is the author of Acquisition, and The Haunting of William Gray.  She is currently working on a Young Adult novel, while editing a suspense novel which has international flair–an homage to her love of travel and foreign food.  She lives on a farm in North Carolina with her husband, Tony Johnson, and one very spoiled German shepherd named Gretel.