Starbucks might be a fairly cushy environment for discussing the harsh lives of medieval Crusaders, but it turns out that historical novelist Jon Anthony Hauser knows a thing or two about agony and deprivation.
As a teenager growing up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, Hauser juggled chores, school and wrestling practice — all the while basically fasting so he could keep his 150-pound body within range of the 112-pound weight class in which he competed.
The focus and drive he developed then led the history and political science major to run (albeit unsuccessfully) for the Wisconsin statehouse as a 22-year-old. After a decade in Republican politics, working his own campaigns as well as others, Hauser went to work in steel fabrication, first for his dad and then for Fort Wayne boat manufacturer Harris-Kayot.
But Hauser, 44, never abandoned his passion for history — or his maniacal work ethic. Now he eschews evening TV to work on the second of a planned trilogy about the Crusades, and starts every morning with a 5-mile run in which he works on plot development.
I’ll be curious to read Hauser’s first book, Beyond Byzantium, when it comes out later this spring.
But what I really want to know is this: Did all that fasting as a wrestler, both in high school and later at Monmouth College in Illinois, screw up his diet as an adult?
Q. So do you have any lingering effects on how you eat now from having had to limit food so much as a teenager?
A. “We were a miserable bunch,” Hauser says, noting that wrestling season encompassed both Thanksgiving and Christmas, so he was never able to indulge in those feasts.
The worst part, he says, was the constant dehydration — the key tool for making weight.
“When I was in college, I told myself, ‘After you wrestle your last match, you are never stepping on a scale again.’ At that point, I didn’t care if I blew up to 200 pounds.”
But he never did. As an adult, he says his weight has stayed within a 5-10 pound range — and he does find himself stepping on a scale every now and then.
Q. So is there some part of you that relates to all that Medieval suffering that takes place in your books?
A. Could be, Hauser says.
“The period of time I’m writing about, people understood that physical pain was a part of life. These people were starving to death,” Hauser says, describing a scene from his second book.
“I was never on the brink of starvation out in the desert. But I do know what it’s like to not want to drag myself out of bed in the morning (to do farm chores before school). I know what it’s like to go to the school library instead of the cafeteria during lunch period. To not be able to get a drink of water — to go to the drinking fountain, then spit the water back out. To barely make it through the school day, then have to go to wrestling practice.
“There is no workout worse than a wrestling workout — but you could never get a drink of water.”
And then when he got home, instead of a big dinner, there were more farm chores.
All of that, he says, “was just an everyday experience to me.”
Q. Where are you on the healthy food vs. fastfood spectrum? Do you periodically overindulge in junk food to make up for the years when you couldn’t?
A. “Right in the middle. I’m not a fast food junkie, but I’ll eat it if its there. … I don’t have a set diet. I know what’s good for me. But for the most part, I don’t care that much about what I eat. I figure the 5 miles a day takes care of it.”
Q. So that comes from your days as a cross country runner? What was it like running cross country in college?
A. “I ran cross country to stay in shape for wrestling,” Hauser says. “We ran 10 miles a day in practice.”
Practices, he says, would often include a couple of miles of warmups and a couple more miles to cool down, with “mile repeats” in the middle.
“Mile repeats — those are miserable. We’d have to run one mile in 5 minutes or less, then rest for 60 seconds, then run another mile in 5 minutes or less. We’d do that five times, and every one had to be 5 minutes or less.”
Q. But you obviously have come to like running if you continue to do it every morning.
A. Running, says, Hauser, is now a crucial part of his lifelong attempt to stay fit.
“To me, health is more than just diet. I don’t smoke or drink. I’ve never done street drugs.
I believe there’s a connection between a healthy mind and a healthy body.”
Hauser says he believes he thinks more clearly — and writes better — when his body is healthy and strong. So he begins his morning workout with crunches and pushups, then follows up with a 5-mile run along the River Greenway, invariably following the same route: Starting near the water filtration plant and going north for 2.5 miles and back.
He says he likes the fact that the running is automatic, that he doesn’t have to think about what he’s doing — freeing up his mind to work out problems in the story he’s working on.
“One of the things I find particularly beneficial (during my runs) is allowing my mind to explore and wander while my body is busy. Some of my best thinking occurs during this time, and not coincidentally, some of my most intriguing plots and characters are developed then.”
Q. So what were you working on during your run this morning?
A. “Right now I’m working on the second book, and one of my characters is at an impasse. I’ve got one of my main characters sitting in a jail cell in a castle in Antioch, and I’m thinking of a way to get him back involved in the story. I think I’m coming up with something.”
Q. Let’s get back to my dietary questionnaire here before I forget. What do you eat for breakfast?
A. Corn flakes with milk — well, actually they’re Frosted Flakes. And peanut butter on an English muffin. That’s it. That makes me quite full, takes me all the way through until lunch time.”
Q. Are you much of a snacker?
A. “No. I don’t buy snacks. But if there are some around, I’ll eat them. If somebody brings in a plate of cookies, I’ll have some.”
Q. Does it bother you to get overly full?
A. “Yes. It makes me feel sluggish.”
Q. What’s your favorite meal at your favorite restaurant?
A. “I don’t know. I don’t eat out much.”
Q. Let‘s say it‘s the last meal of your life. You‘re on death row, and you get to request anything you want. What would you choose?
A. “Let’s see. I guess I’d have some of that chocolate chip ice cream with the chunks of cookie dough in it. I’d probably want some prime rib with mashed potatoes. And a tall glass of milk.”
Q. OK, this is the point where I usually ask if there’s anything else you’d like to add. So what would you like people to know about your book? Why should they be interested in the Crusades?
A. The Crusades, Hauser says, are of particular interest not only because Medieval Europe was beginning to “wake up” from the Dark Ages and give birth to what we now know as Western Civilization, but because they also give context to our current “War on Terror.”
“People think ‘jihad’ is something new,” Hauser says. “They don’t realize that the first holy war between Muslims and Christians was fought 900 years ago (during the First Crusade.)”
“The biggest reason I write the book is that I feel we’re at a crossroads in our history. People in this country have so little appreciation for history. … There are so many parallels between this country and the Roman Empire. I’m not saying that we’re going to collapse tomorrow. But I can see a long, slow steady decline.”