Indie Monday

Today’s guest: Randy D. Pearson

Randy Pearson

On occasional Mondays, I’ll be featuring other authors on my blog—authors who produce quality work outside the boundaries and strictures of the traditional mass-produced, mass-marketed commercial publishing world and traditional bookstore shelves.

I’m delighted that today’s featured guest is the multitalented novelist, short fiction author, storyteller, and humorist Randy D. Pearson. Randy is the author of two novels, Driving Crazy (2015) and Trac Brothers (2018), and a book of short stories, Tell Me a Story (2016). Randy’s writing has been featured in numerous publications, including the Washington Square Review, Pets Across America: Volume 3, Small Towns: A Map in Words, Seasons of Life, Voices from the Ledges, Fiction 440: Volume 1, and Retrocade Magazine.

Recently I posed some questions to Randy. Here’s what he told me.

DL: Randy, welcome. Could you tell us a little about yourself?

RDP: Why sure! I was born in a horse stall in Wyoming . . . wait, that wasn’t me. I busted out of a giant egg . . . no, that can’t be right. My best guess (after all, I was pretty young back then) is that I entered this world in Lansing, Michigan, probably in a hospital of some sort. With an artist father (commercial artist, professor, and a marvelous painter) and an imaginative mother, creativity surrounded me. Though I couldn’t draw well—who gets a D in art?—I found I had a talent for concocting weird, unique ideas, and eventually became proficient at putting them into words. I now have three books in the world, one of which (Tell Me a Story) is my short story collection, cataloging thirty years of my work. The other two are full-length novels—Driving Crazy is a road trip comedy and Trac Brothers is an action adventure with some humor and a little bit of Michigan history.

A lifelong Michigan resident, I currently live out in the country with my wife of five-and-a-half years, a lovely stepdaughter, and four calico cats.

DL: Tell us about your latest book and works in progress. Where did the ideas for those works come from?

RDP: My latest novel, Trac Brothers, hit the shelves in 2018. It’s the story of two brothers who inherit a fully functioning 19th century handcar (like the railroad industry used back in the day). Jam and Jax find themselves stranded in the town of Manton, Michigan, and realize the only way they are going to get back home to Lansing is to put the unwieldy beast on the train tracks, and have the adventure of a lifetime. This novel has been so well received that the sequel (TB II: Santascoy’s Revenge) is in the works, hopefully for a 2020 release.

The idea for Trac Brothers flooded my brain one day while parked at a railroad crossing. The gates came down, but the train hadn’t shown up yet. My mind wandered back to the old silent films, and I thought how funny it would be if two guys came slowly pumping past in a handcar. The story blossomed in my head, and I sat there mentally writing it, until cars behind me started honking! The train had come and gone, and I sat there dreaming of brothers with a handcar.

DL: Why do you write? What do you hope to accomplish with your writing?

RDP: My brain has a condition that I call “What-If Syndrome.” When some mundane thing happens in my life, I immediately spin off into some sort of wild tangent . . . what if THIS would’ve happened instead? I have also missed the ending to countless movies and TV shows because I’m mentally creating a “much better” story than the happenings on the screen.

I write because if I don’t get these ideas out of my head, they won’t stop bouncing around! Ideas from twenty+ years ago still nag and pick and needle at me! Eventually, I have to say ENOUGH and let them out.

As for what I hope to accomplish, simply enough, I just want to entertain. I don’t care about being rich, and my wife says I’m not allowed to become famous. I just want people to hear or read my stuff, and come away feeling like it was time well spent.

DL: Please talk a little about your writing process. What is your favorite part of the process? Least favorite?

RDP: As you can gather from my previous responses, I usually write stories in my head first, long before I ever enter them into my computer. For short stories and for my first novel, Driving Crazy, I generally write them completely in my brain, let them percolate and circulate for several days (or weeks . . . months . . . years . . .). I find I can’t start writing a story if I don’t have some idea how it ends. I hate writing myself into a corner! However, with Trac Brothers, I finally had to start putting the ideas down in sections due to the scope and complexity of the story. I tried doing an outline, but that wasn’t working for me, so I ended up writing a five-page synopsis of the entire story—essentially a short story version of the novel, hitting the high points. That helped me to keep on track, so to speak.

My favorite part of the process is seeing how the story and the characters develop. I can’t tell you how many times characters have done things I didn’t expect them to do. It’s the coolest sensation!

Least favorite has to be editing. I hate cutting my babies! Though I tend to keep the purged bits and put them on my website—if movies can have deleted scenes, why can’t novels?

DL: Could you reflect a bit on what writing or being a writer has meant for you and your life?

RDP: For me, writing has always been a release—getting these wacky and wonderful ideas from my brain to a computer screen or page. When I was young, I didn’t write for others, only for me. In my teens, I would hand-write my stories, or type them on my Atari 400 computer and print them on a dot-matrix printer. Sometimes, if I felt brave enough, I would show them to family and friends. They would generally say something like, “This is cool,” or “how fun,” and that would be the end of it.

In my late teens and early 20s, I started posting my short stories on my BBS (Bulletin Board System, the precursor to the Internet). I ran a couple of BBSs with my various Atari computers—one called Magrathea and other The Fletcher Memorial Home. Again, people would read the stories and give me vague platitudes and verbal pats upon the back.

It was only when I joined Writing at the Ledges, the phenomenal writing group out of Grand Ledge, Michigan, did I finally start receiving constructive criticism and honing my craft. This led me to become a published author in 2008 when they released the first of their group anthologies, Small Towns: A Map in Words. I learned how to format, how to edit critically, and how to market /sell. With this understanding of how to publish under my belt, I was able to bring Driving Crazy to the world in 2010. Today, people have read my stories and articles in a couple dozen periodicals, anthologies, websites, and magazines.

In terms of what it means for me to be a published author, it has given me a great number of gifts. I’ve done hundreds of events since my first one at the 2008 Grand Ledge Island Art Fair. Being in front of people, reading stories or hawking my books, is an exhilarating experience that would’ve terrified the younger me. I enjoy entertaining, and am delighted that my stories have brought elation to so many people. I’ve met dozens of authors and readers, many of whom are now dear friends . . . and in one case, even more. During an author event at Everybody Reads in Lansing, the owner introduced me to a wonderful woman named Wendy. A couple years later, she became my wife.

DL: What are links to your books, website, and blog so readers can learn more about you and your work?

RDP: My website is https://www.randydpearson.com. Here readers will find links to my three novels, including excerpts and those fun deleted scenes, as well as short stories, articles, pictures, and a list of events.

My books are also available on Amazon. My author page is https://www.amazon.com/Randy-D-Pearson/e/B01DPZ04WA.

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Three Favors

I’ve been reading a lot of online postings lately about people dealing with their grief over loved ones—brothers, sons, parents, spouses—who have died. I suppose I’m sensitive to the subject at this time because the anniversary of the death of one of my loved ones, my grandson Jamie (the model for Toby in my mystery series), came around a week and a half ago.

Jamie was twenty-five when he died, and we all loved him dearly; his brother Alex used to say Jamie was the glue that held the family together. He was in a year-long vegetative state that preceded his death, and that somewhat prepared us for losing him. But we still weren’t ready for the 2:30 a.m. phone call from his mom telling us he was gone.

Who is ever prepared for that call?

Even now, eight years on, his loss is still hard to manage. I find myself talking to him almost every day, narrating my life, telling him how much I miss him. When I find feathers on my walks, I like to think Jamie left them as reminders that he is still around in some form.

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Wishful thinking, I know; dead is dead.

So when I’ve been reading about how people are trying to come to terms with their grief over loved ones who have died, I empathize with their losses deeply.

But there’s another kind of grief—the grief that comes in the wake of losing someone you should have been close to, but weren’t. Sometimes what you grieve for then is not the loss of the person from your life, but the loss of the possibility that any closeness could ever happen.

While that could describe my entire family of origin, I think of it particularly in terms of my brother Cal.

His name was Charles, but everybody called him Cal because of his initials: Charles Allan Levin. He died in 1984; he was only 41 years old. He was older than I by six years, and for a variety of reasons we weren’t close as brothers. Or even as strangers, for that matter.

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My brother, 1960

Not only were we completely different personalities. Much of the problem in our adult years came from his long-term drug use, which wreaked a seemingly endless havoc on the family, as these things will do.

It’s conventional to say people died after a “long battle” with drug abuse, but that’s not quite true in his case. He didn’t so much fight against the drugs as embrace them like a lover. Yet even as I write it, I know that’s not exactly accurate either.

He died in a YMCA in Honolulu after failing to complete a lavish drug-treatment program in Hawaii that he conned my father into paying for. My father told everyone (including me) that Cal died from emphysema, but on the death certificate I saw the actual cause of death was amphetamine poisoning.

The only surprise was that his usual drugs of choice were barbiturates and pain-killers.

My last contact with him was several years before he died, when he called to ask me for money because our father (his usual touch) was out of town. I refused, and he hung up on me.

As you might expect, my anger at him and what he did to the family was profound and corrosive. It lasted for a long time, both before and after his death. He sucked up all the oxygen in the family for years; he and my parents formed a demented triad of mutually-assured destruction that left me on the outside looking in on my own family.

As I grew older, however, and gained some distance on it all, and began to deal with my own issues created by our family which was, if not broken, then really really bent, my attitude toward my brother began to change.

I started to get some insight into why he turned to drugs, and why he had such a hard time giving them up, or even admitting he couldn’t live without them. I started to see that, far from being the reason for the upset in the family, his drug use was a reaction to existing family problems, which of course only worsened because of his addiction.

I came to realize that the pain affecting me from my family pre-dated his antics, and also affected him. I understood we each tried to deal with that pain in different—albeit equally ineffective—ways.

When I started writing poetry, I found myself writing some about my brother. One in particular helped me come to a sort of accomodation, if not forgiveness, with him, in part through a recognition finally of both what he had lost and of the similarities between us. I think this poem captures those insights.

A version of this poem appeared in the April 2004 issue of Saucyvox.

Three Favors

1

It is 1966 and I’m struggling

to figure out the chords for “Desolation Row”

needle-dropping on my turntable

when my brother calls from next door where

he and the neighbor are watching a movie

and the 16mm projector jammed.

“Can you try to get it going?”

A simple problem to diagnose:

the worn sprockets on the well-watched film

have twisted over one of the feeders.

 

The curl in the plastic needs to be freed

and the film rethreaded. I start

the old machine and in the square of light

thrown on the screen in the neighbor’s bedroom

appear grainy black and white images

of a truly epic blow job

in extreme close-up, a woman’s lips

and sinuous tongue slaver up and down

a monster phallus glistening with spit

for longer than I would have thought possible.

 

My first stag flick makes me gape in wonder

at the animal rawness of it

as though it is a documentary

about an encounter between two apes

and the camera morbidly scientific

instead of pornographic—exactly

the opposite of erotic, with

a sound track filled with soggy sucking

and a man’s hammy moaning

tinny on the project’s tiny speaker.

 

When another actor enters the scene

and begins to take his own clothes off

I judge I have seen enough and leave them

to their whoops and fun. “The world’s longest

blow job,” the neighbor chortles. I return

to the silence of my own room

where I take up my guitar again

and rest an ear on the curve of its shoulder

to let the hard vibrating wood

ring the bones of my head like a bell.

 

2

The second time, 1971,

we stay in the Southfield apartment

where our parents moved when they fled Detroit.

My brother needs a ride to a job

to meet a friend, this contractor,

he tells me, and he can’t drive himself

since he wrapped his Mustang around a tree.

I am in another room, this time reading

(I’m in my hard-boiled mystery phase)

when his spare and stricken figure heaves

 

into the doorway. “Can you give me a ride?”

he asks, his scarred right arm hanging limp

at his side, casualty of a scalding bathtub

he had fallen into once while stoned.

This is the time when he makes phone calls

day and night cadging prescriptions for pills

from shady physicians. He tells them

he is a cancer patient from out of town

grappling with terrible pain. He makes

his voice quake in pretend agony.

 

He directs me to a cracked and potholed street

on the east side of Detroit where we roll

to a stop outside a house with black paint

hiding living room windows and high grass

gone to seed in the lawn. He steps from the car

uncertainly and hobbles stiff-legged

up the walk. Rings the doorbell and waits.

It occurs to me this is not about a job.

No light escapes from the front door

that cracks to allow him entrance.

 

A minute later he is out, walking fast.

“We’re done,” he says, and drops into the car.

“Take off.” I smell his sour sweat and his voice shakes,

this time for real. In his lap he cups

something small, like an animal he shelters

and gives me a sidelong glance that says more

than I want to know about fear and shame.

For the rest of the day he wanders around

the apartment with a spoon in his pocket

and I stay in my room and read about Sam Spade.

 

3

‘Seventy-seven, in another room,

grading essays for my classes at Wayne State

when my brother phones, which he never does.

Our father is away for the weekend. “Can I borrow

fifty bucks?” he asks. “I swear I’ll pay you back.”

I don’t even remember why he said

he wanted the cash, but I thought I knew.

He must have been desperate indeed

to try me. But I am through granting favors.

I blame him for every unhappiness

 

visited on our family, for all the problems of my own.

“Don’t lay that on me,” he spits, and hangs up.

It is the last time I speak with my brother.

Years later he is dead, found in a room

at the Y in downtown Honolulu.

Today, older than he would live to be

I imagine bars of tropical sunlight

peeking through his window blinds, striping

his decomposing body, his mouth twisted

in lines deep as cracks in asphalt, hair wild

 

as stalks of unmown grass as he sprawls,

melting after seven undiscovered days,

across his narrow bed, forlorn as a poor woodsman

in a dismal tale who has squandered his three wishes

and died alone, without family, friends, job,

or money, having lost, along with his

precious time in the sun, his last lucky chance

that some indifferent lips might try,

tirelessly, to coax him, childless and self-

abandoned, back into despondent life.

Ethics and Killer Copters

In 1985, in the midst of a worklife marked by almost constant professional reinvention, I found myself sitting around a table at an IBM facility near Binghamton, NY, having one of those “What Am I Doing Here?” moments.

I was sitting with two guys from the local branch of IBM’s Federal Systems Division. Their division, as the name suggests, undertook a variety of contracts and projects for the government.

We were talking about a project they wanted me to do. I was then a free-lance writer specializing in, well, anything anybody wanted to hire me for. At the time, I found myself writing a lot of scripts for training and promotional videos, and they wanted me to write one of those.

The project was titled, “The LAMPS MK II Radar Data Processor:  Flight Test Report.”

Briefly, the LAMPS MK II Radar Data Processor was a complicated system of electronics to improve the reliability and effectiveness of radar, data-linking, and other key operations of helicopters.

Despite the bland title, the project wasn’t just a report on the system’s flight test. The real purpose was a script for a training and sales video for the new helicopter system. The script had to sell the system, which meant I had to buy into its value, at least for the duration of the project.

The thing was, this wasn’t just for any kind of helicopters. It was for what are called “destroyer helicopters.”

And as that name suggests, these were weapons of war. Helicopters that blow stuff up and kill people.

This was a few years after the Falkland Islands War (look that up if you never heard of it), and as the two guys from IBM were giving me information I needed to write the script, they were getting more and more excited about the capabilities of their product. In fact, it wasn’t long before they were literally whooping and hollering and flying their hands like helicopters over the table and bouncing up and down in their chairs talking about how GREAT this system was at killing things, and what the Brits could’ve done if they’d had these little babies in the Falklands.

Seriously, it was like something out of “Alice’s Restaurant.”

So here’s the scene: me—a young writer, pacifist, Viet Nam war protester, what my first roommate in college (an engineer) disparaged as an “arty type”—sitting in the room with two suits who were acting like they were crazy.

So what was I doing there, you may ask?

As I said, I was then a free-lance writer. When you’re a free-lancer, you wake up every day and you’re basically unemployed, which means you have to scrounge for work constantly. And therefore, like most free-lancers, I was mostly broke. The IBM job wouldn’t make me rich, but it would help to stabilize my bank account until something else came along.

And anyway, I told myself, it was just a job; my real writing, the writing that mattered, was the fiction I was learning how to write.

I was reminded of this the other day when I saw a quote from Tony Schwartz, the ghost writer of The Art of the Deal, arguably (along with his reality tv show) the thing most responsible for creating the pernicious myth of Donald Trump as a successful businessman.

“Trump is the most purely evil human being I’ve ever met,” Schwartz said.

My first thought was, “And thanks for doing your bit to help him con the country, Tony.”

But then I thought, even if he knew how awful Trump was, Schwartz probably had no idea somebody like Trump could ever become president, and anyway he was doing exactly what I did when I took on a job writing about destroyer helicopters: doing what you have to to get by.

I don’t know how Schwartz felt about his project, but I felt terrible about mine. I knew it was wrong, and I had tried to persuade myself that my financial situation would somehow excuse it.

Except it didn’t.

I wasn’t the same afterwards. I learned, in a way I had known really only theoretically before, that there is no such thing as an ethically neutral action. In particular, for writers, there is no such thing as ethically neutral writing. It all has consequences for which we are responsible, no matter what kind of writing we do.

I have left that life behind, but I’m still writing, and I’m writing in an area that is fraught with ethical conflicts. I’m a mystery writer: I write about crime; I write about violence and its effects. I write about things that bad people do.

In my Martin Preuss mystery series, I’m constantly dealing with the question: Is it possible to portray unethical actions ethically? Don Winslow puts it another way: “Is it possible to live decently in an indecent world?”

I can’t say I’m doing it well, but I think the answer to both questions is yes. The key for me is to write with a consciousness about about how I portray violence, which is a tremendous social problem—not only violence in action, but in language and thought as well.

Those of us who work in a genre that is so associated with violence have a special duty to treat it responsibly, to treat it, that is, ethically.

This means not only not glorifying it, but showing the truly awful cascading consequences of violence on everyone associated with it, perpetrators and victims and bystanders. And, in my case, to make sure the books present a clear ethical alternative to the unethical actions that flood my fictional world.

As I’ve said elsewhere on this blog, at this particularly dreadful moment in history, we need a literature that allows us to enter imaginatively and empathetically—and ethically—into the experience of others, individuals as well as the group, and be transformed. We need a literature that expands, not contracts, our sympathies.

I try to do that in my mysteries. The books go beyond simply offering readers a tricky puzzle to pass the time with, and instead help them to enter the minds and hearts of my characters, and see and understand the world through those eyes, too.

For those of you who know my work, you might also recognize that Toby, my main character’s profoundly handicapped son, is (among all the other purposes he serves in the series) an important ethical touchstone for his father. And, I hope, for my readers.

A few years ago I was at a writers’ conference and we were talking about killing off characters. I made some remarks about the rather cavalier way people were talking about doing away with their characters, and one of the other writers called me “the moral compass” for the group.

She was kidding, but I loved that. I welcomed it, in fact. My moral compass might not have started forming with those two guys jumping up and down about the joys of killing helicopters, but that day certainly got me headed in the right direction.

Coming in November: A new dystopian anthology

I’m pleased to announce that I’m joining two distinguished local authors to celebrate the release of our first collaborative project at a book launch party at the historic Arden Park Kresge Mansion in Detroit on Saturday, November 2, 2019, from 1 till 4 p.m.

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Andrew Charles Lark, Wendy Thomson, and I have been working hard on the anthology of original dystopian novellas. Titled Postcards from the Future: A Triptych on Humanity’s End (Quitt and Quinn Publishers/Whistlebox Press), it’s currently in the final stages of production.

At the launch, we’ll read from our sections in the book and sign copies, which will be available for purchase.

The original idea for the book was Andrew’s, and when he invited Wendy and me into the project, we both said yes immediately.

Andrew is the author of Better Boxed and Forgotten, a supernatural thriller set in Detroit’s Indian Village. Wendy is the author of Summon the Tiger, a memoir, and The Third Order, an international tale of suspense.

My previous works include the six novels in the Martin Preuss mystery series (Crimes of Love, The Baker’s Men, Guilt in Hiding, The Forgotten Child, An Uncertain Accomplice, and Cold Dark Lies); two books of poetry, In Praise of Old Photographs and New Year’s Tangerine; and a mainstream novel, The House of Grins.

The three pieces in Postcards from the Future are thoughtful and engaging short novels that embrace the precepts of the dystopian—a subject much in the news lately owing to the recent publication of Margaret Atwood’s new novel, The Testaments, her sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale.

Each of the works in Postcards from the Future offers a dark and imaginative take on the end of humanity:

Andrew’s “Pollen” is a riveting multiple point-of-view account of a strange atmospheric phenomenon that destroys humankind’s ability to reproduce, ushering in the extinction of our species.

Wendy’s “Silo Six” is a suspenseful story of love and survival set far into the future when the sun begins its transformation into a red giant and scorchesthe earth into a virtually uninhabitable cinder.

My “The Bright and Darkened Lands of the Earth” is a gripping tale set in a desperate, post-apocalyptic future where a heroic woman battles ecological and social collapse in an effort to save her tribe—and humanity—from certain annihilation.

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The Arden Park Kresge Mansion is located at 74 Arden Park Boulevard in Detroit. The launch celebration will be quite an event; in addition to our readings, it will feature live music and refreshments along with an open house at the historic mansion. The event is free and open to the public, though a small donation to support Detroit Cristo Rey High School is suggested.

Space is limited, so if you’re interested in attending the launch, please RSVP through the Contact tab at Andrew’s page, www.alarksperch.com.

If you can’t get there, our book will be available in November through Amazon in print and ebook formats, and on order from bookstores.

For me, writing my section was great fun and a wonderful change of pace from my mystery series. I’ve already started to work on a spin-off from my novella, and I’m looking into an entire cycle of works based on what I’m calling the Dry Earth Series. Watch for more information as this develops!

On Advice, and Where It Comes From

This morning over coffee I saw one of those ubiquitous bits of Facebook wisdom attributed to everyone from Anonymous to Abraham Lincoln to Morgan Freeman. It said, “Some of the best advice I’ve ever been given: Don’t take criticism from someone you wouldn’t ever go to for advice.”

No matter who said it, when we’re starting out as writers, we’re always (or should be, anyway) looking for advice and help from established authors. When I give talks, I’m sometimes asked what was the best advice I ever received. I’m hardly ever asked what was the worst advice, yet that can sometimes be as useful as the best advice.

Back in the seventies, when I had written my first novel, I gave the manuscript to the author John Gardner to read, comment on, and, I’d hoped in my wildest dreams, recommend to his agent. Gardner is no longer with us, but at the time he was quite a famous guy. I was hungry for what he could tell me.

Not to be confused with the John Gardner who took over the James Bond series, this one wrote some best-selling literary novels in the late seventies and early eighties (including Grendel, The Sunlight Dialogues, October Light, and Mickelsson’s Ghosts) in addition to children’s books, well-regarded books of criticism, and—guess what—advice for writers (The Art of FictionOn Moral Fiction, On Becoming a Novelist).

At that time he was running the creative writing program at the State University of New York at Binghamton, New York, and he was friends with my wife, who was also teaching in the English Department.

I was an adjunct instructor in the department, and had met him on several occasions. He had the reputation for being extremely helpful to apprentice writers. I’d see him around the department, and in my interactions with him he was warm and friendly, and treated me like a colleague. He asked to see some of my writing, and told me he’d publish me in the new literary journal he had started at Binghamton, he’d recommend me to his agent, he’d help get me published, and so on.

I had written a draft of a novel, my first, a kind of bildungsroman about a young man who gradually learns to get in touch with “the life he had lost in living,” to paraphrase T.S. Eliot. Called Vital Signs, it was a typical first book, not groundbreaking, I knew, but still I thought it had its merits.

I put it off as long as possible, but I finally screwed my courage to the sticking place and with high hopes I gave him the manuscript.

Time passed.

More time passed.

Even more time passed and I hadn’t heard back from him. So one night, when we were both at the English Department’s annual Christmas party (a huge event, since the department was large, with large undergrad and grad programs), I took the opportunity to approach him to ask if he’d had a chance to read the book.

He told me he had.

And he told me my book was evil.

He didn’t mean it as a compliment. Not like, “Dude, your book is eeeeevillllll!”

No, the best-selling author of On Moral Fiction had just told me I’d written an evil novel.

Evil, as in morally corrosive.

As in bad. As in no good.

I’d read On Moral Fiction . . . I knew what he meant: it was trivial, it was boring, it was a lie.

He told me there wasn’t much to do with an evil book.

As you might expect, this was not good news. Here was this big-time, best-selling, hot-shot author known around the English department (and indeed, around the country) as a generous and helpful mentor of young writers, and all he had to say about my book was that it was evil.

It was a blow it took me a while to recover from. (If you’ve read my June 4th blog post, you’ll know this was one of a series of blows that drove me away from writing for awhile.)

Two things happened that helped me come to terms with it. One was what I subsequently learned about that night. Not only was he drunk when I talked to him at the party, but his wife had sued him for divorce earlier that day. 

So he was not only plastered, but he was in a particularly foul mood.

The second thing was, a few days later, I got a note from him, apologizing. He told me he enjoyed the book, that he meant to just skim it but it engaged him so much he read it through entirely, that there were many good things about it, and that he would gladly write a blurb for it.

That salved the wound, but the constant little demon-critic who lives on our shoulders still had me wondering: was it really such a bad book that it took drunkenness for him to be honest about it? In vino veritas?

Still, I gained a lot from this interaction with Gardner—not so much that I am an evil writer, but that you really do have to be careful about whom you seek criticism from (despite all his gifts, Gardner was, I subsequently discovered, an extremely, even reactionarily, conservative critic); you have to be careful about when you ask for it; and—most of all—you have to be very careful about investing too much in what you hear. Another writer, even the hottest, best-selling peddler of moral fiction, is just another point of view, a man or woman with problems and limitations of perspective and weaknesses and failed marriages that sometimes color the advice.

I also learned the importance of being kind when dealing with a young writer, something I never forgot when I became a professor, and, ultimately, a published novelist and poet interacting with other writers, both beginning and established.

I never did publish that manuscript I gave Gardner to review, but I published lots of other things, and why I was able to go on writing was due in part to something he wrote about being a novelist. In fact, it was the best piece of wisdom I’ve ever read about writing in his On Becoming a Novelist:

”Finally, the true novelist is the one who doesn’t quit. Novel-writing is not so much a profession as a yoga, or ‘way,’ an alternative to ordinary life-in-the-world. Its benefits are quasi-religious—a changed quality of mind and heart, satisfactions no non-novelist can understand—and its rigors generally bring no profit except to the spirit. For those who are authentically called to the profession, spiritual profits are enough.”

I’ve gone back to this paragraph time and again for its wisdom. While the episode with Vital Signs was demoralizing, it turned out that Gardner’s words have seen me through some difficult times, after all.

What I Learned from Reading Walter Mosley

Before retiring, I taught at a college in Detroit where the big event of the year was a Contemporary American Authors Lecture Series held each spring. This series brought in a guest African American writer each year to give a free public reading and hold a master class with our own and area high school students.

For nine years, I was chair of the English Department that hosted the event. That meant I was the emcee for the evening; my job was to preside over the gathering and, if necessary, introduce the writer.

One of the guest authors I introduced was Walter Mosley, author of the Easy Rawlins and Leonid McGill mystery series, among many other books.

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Rarely had past writers (mostly literary novelists and poets) prompted the kind of passionate public excitement that Mosley did. For months leading up to the reading, phone calls flooded the department from the public as their anticipation mounted.

Among the callers were people wanting not only the usual information—time, place, and so on—but wanting also something more, wanting, if not needing, to talk about Mosley’s works . . . callers who were simply bursting to talk about their favorite characters with the stranger on the other end of the line; callers wanting to know which were my favorite books, and who I liked better, Easy Rawlins or Leonid McGill; callers wanting to know what did I think of that hussy Katrina and why would Leonid ever want to stay with her?

Clearly, his readership idolized him.

To prepare my introduction of him, I gave myself a crash course in Mosley’s works, reading deeply and broadly in all the series as well as the stand-alone books that he had published as of that point.

As a crime writer myself, I read with a double vision: looking for not only what I could use in my introduction of him, but also what I could learn from him for my own writing.

At the end of my reading project, I found much to learn, both in terms of what to do and what to avoid as an author.

I have to say that many aspects of his writing turned me off; the cliched uses of violence and sex, for example, as well as the (to me) annoying similarity of plots and situations from book to book, as when his main characters stop what they’re doing to explain where their next bit of wisdom came from.

Even so, Mosley’s good at what he does, and it was useful for me to understand why and how.

I came to see that Mosley’s work grabs his readers for many reasons. He pulls some in because of the powerhouse prose, the clarity and precision of his eye, the dialogue that crackles with authenticity. Others read him for his way with a story, for plots that hook readers from the first line and don’t let loose till the final page.

Still others loved seeing his strong black characters, male and female, negotiating their way through a complex and often dangerous world. His main characters—Easy, Socrates, Fearless, Leonid, and others—are so engaging because how they work the borderlands between communities serves as a metaphor for the complexities of race in America.

Still others loved the way the quests in his works are always, ultimately, about redemption.

Beyond that, what I learned as a writer had to do with technique: how to set up characters that are vivid and relatable, how to manage multiple plot lines, and how to move the story along quickly and effectively.

One of the things that struck me most about the phone calls that came in while we were preparing for his visit was the almost fanatical devotion his readers have to his characters. Mosley has an incredibly deft touch in populating his fiction with people whom his readers recognize from their own lives, and who fairly leap off the page.

He lets his characters—especially including his first-person narrators—talk in voices that are recognizable and real, and he paints thumbnail portraits of how they look and act, down to the nuanced shades of his characters’ skin tones, in ways that resonate strongly with his readership. He knows his audience and writes to them.

He also adroitly handles three, four, and five interrelated plot lines at a time. My metaphor for what he does is weaving different threads through the fabric of the books. For example, in his Leonid McGill series, main character McGill routinely has to negotiate his family dramas with his wife and children, his love life with his girlfriend, his two or three current cases, and the ever-present past that he struggles in vain to outrun and outfox.

Mosley’s books are busy without seeming overcrowded. I think that, too, partly contributes to the reality of his characters: life is like that.

Finally, for me his work is a master class in how to move those different plot threads along quickly, including the importance of starting scenes at the optimum moment, shaping them for maximum impact, and ending them with enough suspense to get the reader to turn the page; jumping into a chapter or section using a judicious exchange of dialogue or action; and using the transitions of getting the main character from one place to another efficiently.

As I sit down to write the mysteries in my Martin Preuss series, I find myself putting these lessons into practice time and again. It’s another reminder of how much we can glean from critically reading authors who are at the top of their craft.

Are there lessons you’ve learned from your favorite authors? I’d be interested in hearing about them.

An Interview with Martin Preuss

A good friend, Mark Love, is the author of a wonderful series of police procedural novels that he calls the Motown Mysteries. (I interviewed Mark in an earlier post on this blog.) He had the great idea of inviting authors to conduct “interviews” with their main characters on his blog, and his latest interviewee is none other than Martin Preuss, the MC of my series of Ferndale-based mysteries.

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You can find the interview on Mark’s blog at motownmysteries.com. You’ll also find lots of other great posts there, including an interview with Mark’s own detective, Jefferson Chene, and information about Mark’s Motown Mysteries and his other writings.

(Mark wanted to include a photo of what I thought Preuss would look like, but Preuss refused to cooperate . . . so sorry, no photo!)

Here’s the text of that interview. See if you learn something new about the intrepid Preuss!

Welcome, Martin Preuss. Tell us a little about yourself:

MP: This is a hard question for somebody like me to answer . . . These are all hard questions for me, as a matter of fact. I’m a very private person, and I’m not used to sharing much about myself. I’m not one of those people who will tell you their whole life story within the first half-hour after you meet them. You might pull it out of me, but only after I’ve known you for a while. That’s why I’ve put off doing this interview.

But here goes: I’m currently a partner in Greene & Preuss Investigations, a private detective agency in suburban Detroit. Before that I was with the Ferndale Police Department, working my way up from patrol officer to sergeant in the Detective Bureau. I’m from Ypsilanti, Michigan, where my parents were professors at Eastern Michigan University and my brother—well, let’s just say he was good at what he did, and what he did was being a major-league drug addict and all-around jerk. I started college at EMU, but when I married a fellow student, Jeanette Russo, when she got pregnant with our first son Jason, I needed a job to support them. Her father, Nick, was a detective in the Ferndale Police Department, and he’s the one who convinced me to join up. I finished my college degree at Wayne State University in Detroit. Our family was complete when our second son, Toby, was born. Toby has lots of handicaps, but man, nobody has ever been loved as much as that boy is.

How did your background get you involved in the latest novel, Cold Dark Lies?

CDL-Front Cover copy 2MP: After I retired early from the FPD (thanks in large part to the efforts of Nick Russo, but that’s a longer story), I was at loose ends . . . I wasn’t even fifty, with the rest of my life ahead of me, and didn’t know how I was going to fill my days from then on. An 83-year-old private investigator I had met on one of my previous cases, Manny Greene, had been after me to join his one-man agency. I wasn’t keen on doing that; I thought I should do something else, something new. But when Manny—that wise, wise fellow—asked me to look into the disappearance of a young man who hadn’t been seen for forty years, I realized (as I’m sure he knew I would) that investigation is what I was best at. So I joined his agency, and one afternoon when he was tied up and unable to keep a meeting with a new client, he asked me to speak with her. She wanted to find out how her brother wound up strung out on drugs at a skeevy motel in Ferndale, so the Ferndale connection got me hooked and this book was off and running.

Who came first, you or the author?

MP: Levin likes to think he invented me, and I just let him keep on in that delusion. You know how sensitive these writers are.

What is it about this story that sets it apart from the others?

MP: From the other stories in the series, you mean? I think this story is timelier than the other cases. It’s about the impact of the opioid crisis, which is in all the news reports lately. But it’s about the crisis as seen from “ground-level” . . . and by that I mean, it shows the impact of middle-class drug use on the lives not only of the drug users themselves, but on the people who love and care for them. The story show how devastating drug use can be as it destroys lives and brings people in touch with the worse of themselves, as well as the worst of humanity.

Tell us something about your background that may or may not be revealed in the book?

MP: Most people won’t know that I was terribly shy as a boy. (Of course, most people won’t know much about me, as I was saying earlier.) Looking back, I could guess it had a lot to do with my family-of-origin; I was often overwhelmed by the goings-on inside my family. My parents were smart people—they were professors, after all—but that didn’t mean they were always good or even well-intentioned. My father was an alcoholic and my mother was a classic enabler; all her attention went toward protecting my father; my brother and I felt like intruders in our own home. I remember all the times she would shush my brother and me because “Daddy was working,” which usually meant he was in an alcoholic stupor in his home office in the basement. My brother had his own drug problems (my brother’s problems were, eerily, reflected in the case in this book), and sometimes it seemed like I was raising myself. I wound up with the family disease, too . . . I became an alcoholic myself, until Jeanette died. After that I stopped drinking. If I had stopped earlier, things might have been different, but . . . as I always say, if things were different, they wouldn’t be the same.

Are you the type of person who always seeks out the company of others?

MP: Uh, no. I’ve got a few friends—Janie Cahill and Reg Trombley, two of my former colleagues in the Ferndale PD, in particular—and some musician friends (I play rhythm guitar in a band occasionally, whenever I can make the gigs, and I know a lot of musicians around town), but I pretty much keep myself to myself. Reg has his own life with his wife and two daughters and his career in the department, and Janie and I . . . well, our history keeps getting in our way. I might have met someone in this latest book who can pierce through my loneliness, but we’ll all have to wait for the next book to see how that turns out.

What do you do to relax after a day’s work?

MP: I spend as much time as I can with my younger son, Toby. I love the guy more than words can express. He’s multiply-handicapped, with problems that fill a couple of pages on his school IEP: visual limitations, profound cerebral palsy that left him unable to care for his own personal needs, cognitive delays, microcephaly, seizure disorder, the delicate bird bones of his legs that can’t hold up his weight and beak if too much pressure is applied during physical therapy (he’s had a few broken legs). And yet, for all his problems, Toby is the happiest, most content person I’ve ever known. Whenever we go anywhere, he has the best time. He radiates an aura of peace and gentleness that is his default state, spoiled only if one of his physical ailments bother him.

I usually visit him first thing in the morning, before he gets on the bus that takes him to his school program, and I stop in after work or before his bedtime to help give him his bath (his favorite thing in the world), read him some chapters from his Harry Potter books, and spend time talking with him and playing guitar for him as we both unwind from our days before kissing him good night. He lives in a group home because I can’t take care of all his needs by myself with my crazy schedule, first as a detective and now as a private investigator. Not having him live with me is one of my bigger regrets.

Which do you prefer, music or television?

MP: Oh, music, no doubt. I can’t remember the last time I even turned on a television, but music means a lot to me. When I was young, I thought I would be a musician, in fact. Music was a way out of the dreadful realities of my family life.

Who’s your best friend and what influence have they had on your life?

MP: That’s an easy one. Anybody who’s read my books knows the answer to that: My dear son Toby. He’s blessed with a seemingly infinite capacity to offer and accept love from the people who take care of him (including, of course, me), a zenlike patience with the shortcomings and imperfections of other people, an eternal innocence, an ability to savor the best of every moment, and an inability to show or possibly even feel anger. As limited as Toby’s life could be, I often envy his way of being in the world. I sometimes yearn for my son’s blissful contentment, and wish I could learn enough from the boy to be able to replicate it all for myself. He’s also my sounding board for difficult cases; even though he can’t articulate words because of his cerebral palsy, I assume he understands everything I tell him, and talking over my cases with him helps me to get my sometimes-scattered thoughts in order.

What’s your greatest strength? And of course, we want to know the opposite, your greatest weakness.

MP: I have one main strength: what Toby has taught me. Toby keeps me grounded, listens to me puzzle through my cases, and continually shows me what’s really important in life. And it’s not being a hard-drinking, womanizing, wise-cracking, shoot-first tough-guy detective like a lot of fictional detectives. No, it’s being more like what I try to learn from Toby . . . being intuitive; patient; understanding; gentle, even (I refused to carry a gun when I was on the force because I believe violence only creates more violence); and in general more real and down-to-earth than other fictional detectives. You can’t do any of that if you’re busy smashing somebody’s head in.

My weakness? I’d say spending too much time in my own mind, and not being open enough to the vagaries and randomness of life. I was an English minor in college (I started out as a history major), and I remember reading about a character who said he wanted the world to be “at a sort of moral attention forever.” Too often I feel like that’s what I’m like: too guarded, too shut off. It’s something I need to keep pushing against.

What has been the most romantic thing you’ve ever done or instigated?

MP: Well, romance isn’t something I’m comfortable with. My wife died in a car accident several years ago, for which I (and my older son Jason) blame myself even though I wasn’t driving. After one of our wilder fights, she threw the kids in her minivan and took off for her mother’s place up in Traverse City. She never made it: a drunk driver t-boned the car, killing her instantly and injuring the two boys. Since then I haven’t been involved with anyone; I’ve been in a kind of self-imposed exile from relationships.

I guess you might say it’s from the guilt I feel over her death. I’ve had a few close calls with a couple of women, but nothing has worked out since Jeanette died . . . I haven’t even gone on a date, much to the chagrin of the people who read about me. To recall a romantic gesture, I’d have to go back to when Jeanette and I were married—and even then our last few years together were pretty unhappy. Mostly because of me, I hasten to add. With my drinking and moodiness, I wasn’t the best husband or father. But there was that time when we were younger, when we were still a relatively happy family . . . for her birthday one year I arranged to have a bouquet of flowers delivered to her once a week all year-round, including throughout the winter. She loved it. Too bad I couldn’t keep that up longer, right? She might still be around.

If things were different . . .