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.

GE DIGITAL CAMERA

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 . . .  

Advertisements

Indie Monday

Today’s guest: Diana Kathryn Plopa

67236393_10214926295499537_7860566372529471488_n

Every other Monday, 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.

Today’s featured guest is the multitalented novelist, memoirist, short-story writer, editor, publicist, publisher, writing coach, and television host Diana Kathryn Plopa. She holds a degree in English, with a concentration on creative composition, as well as a certification in early childhood development.  In addition to her published books described below, she has also edited several anthologies. She has worked as a features writer for a Detroit newspaper, wrote copy for several websites and blogs, and wrote copy for a popular Detroit radio program. She currently directs Pages Promotions, LLC, a Michigan-based marketing and publicity advocate working with independent authors to promote and present their books to the public. She also hosts Indie Reads TV, a new community access television program for southeastern Michigan.

 

Recently I posed some questions to Diana. Here’s what she told me.

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

DKP: I’m a wife, mother, dog mom, and passionate person of the book.  I love the written word more than almost anything else. My muse is a small, invisible mallard duck named Drake, who has been with me since about age seven. Hot cocoa is my secret weapon, and snow is my kryptonite. I gain tremendous personal satisfaction from helping other Indie Authors reach a wider audience and I host a weekly television program just for that purpose. I’m an editor, Indie Publisher, and mentor to writers of nearly every age, stage, and genre, from school-age children to senior citizens. I believe cheese is a major food group. I encourage everyone to go on a hot air balloon ride, and go indoor skydiving at least once in their lifetime, because controlled chaos is a thing everyone should experience so they can write about it with acumen. I support building libraries in all towns with a population greater than one (if you live alone on a desert island, or in the middle of the woods, you should have a library of at least twenty books in your home at all times). When I’m not writing or reading, I love kayaking, playing with the dogs, bonfires, music, hiking in forests, swimming, and impromptu storytelling.

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

DKP: It’s interesting to contemplate answering that question. The first thing that comes to mind is Neil Gaiman’s answer (YouTube it here, it’s priceless). And yet, I won’t dodge . . . for me, ideas come at me from every direction, and in nearly every moment of my day. No kidding. I once walked down a street with a friend in a part of East Lansing I’d never encountered. As we were walking, I saw a narrow blue door that led to an upstairs flat. It had a glass window that, because of the way the sun was hitting it, seemed to be opaque. I went home that afternoon and wrote a short story about that door and where it might lead and who or what might be on the other side. (I’m still waiting to figure out what to do with that piece, but I wrote it.) Truly, story ideas come from everywhere, at any moment.

Free Will 3D cover

My book, Free Will, came from a very serious religious conversation about the Old Testament and the concept of free will on Earth, yet preordained destiny in the afterlife. That lead me down a “what if” path that ended with a giggle-fest. That story begged me to write it.

Tryst 3D Cover

A Tryst of Fate began as a collection of short stories that I thought might simply be a collection with perhaps a few of them working into a novella one day. Drake pointed out that they all followed a similar theme. Once I accepted that, Drake then suggested that I weave them together with a backstory, and TADA! A novel was born.

The novel I’m working on right now, Splinters, is a western; a genre that I thought would be outside of my reach, until you, Don, suggested that I take a crack at it anyway. See what happens when you plant a seed? It began as a thought experiment in your memoir writing workshop, and now it’s about thirty thousand words into a western adventure which I hope to release in December of this year. Who knew? Certainly not me!

Also in the works are a political thriller which Drake outlined late one night after several weary hours of the evening news and has accumulated about sixty-five thousand words already; a science fiction story that noodled its way into my imagination after a conversation with a psychologist about the concept of what might happen if a society implemented a program of extreme-anger management; an “alternative” historical piece that Drake insisted I outline while we were watching a National Geographic special in a hotel room in Muskegon the night before a book festival; and a children’s book about elephants that keeps needling at me since my mother’s death several years ago.

So, I guess, to answer your question, I find wayward ideas lingering in empty alleys, in philosophical conversations, in thought experiments, and in abandoned emotional warehouses in unspecified locations. Drake and I collect them, treat them gently, and sometimes they become stories that eventually grow into novels. I have neither control nor influence . . . although Drake tells me he can get me a great deal on a bestselling plot —if only I settle down and ignore everything else. I tell him, thanks, but just not yet. It’s too much fun to write lots of stories simultaneously. I can wait for stardom. But that doesn’t keep me from buying the occasional lottery ticket and dreaming about my lonely writer’s garret on an island off the coast of Greece with a plate of flaming cheese, a puppy at my feet, and a new novel in the works.

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

DKP: I have a shirt that says, “I write for the same reason that I breathe; because if I didn’t, I would die.” That kind of sums up why I write. I think that if I ignored the ideas, shut Drake out of my head, and put down the pen and keyboard, I’d be an excruciatingly depressed person. This writing thing is what gives my life meaning and makes me feel whole.

As for what I want to accomplish, well, that answer has three parts. First, I write so I can turn off my brain at night and sleep. It sounds wacky, but it’s true. If I don’t get it on paper, it just nags at me and I don’t sleep. I’m sure there’s some psychotic diagnosis for that, but it has yet to be revealed. Second, I write to satiate a curious fascination with what genre might actually be my favorite. You see, I don’t know yet, what I like best of all. So, I’m on a quest to write one book in all thirty-three major genres. I think writing is a little like eating ice cream, you have to try all the flavors before you can declare a favorite. Finally, aside from sleeping, remaining sane, and feeding my own weird curiosity, I’d like to think that my writing contributes something positive to the lives of those who read my work. Perhaps it helps them fall asleep; maybe it tickles their brain with a thought they haven’t had before; maybe it inspires them to take a stab at writing themselves; or perhaps it just simply makes someone happy. I don’t really have any grandiose expectations for what my writing should do.However, above all else, I want to contribute something to the world library—be it good, or mediocre. I think there’s always room for more stories.

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

DKP: I love the outline stage. That feeling of crafting something new, feeling out all the pieces, and putting them together to form a story is quite exhilarating for me. I love the actual writing part, too, because my brain goes to places sometimes that surprises me. I like that a lot. It’s a nifty thing to watch what appears on the screen and think to myself, “Wow, I’ve never had that thought before, that’s interesting.” The act of creation is fun beyond description.

As for my least favorite part?  I’m not a fan of implementing a new marketing program for each book. Yes, I write in several genres, so each book needs to be presented to readers differently. But that would be true even if I were to stick with only one genre. Books aren’t widgets, and they require different approaches to reach different readers. I understand that, but I’d much rather have a magic script that would entice people of every background and interest to buy every one of my books equally. That is a fantasy, of course. So, I have to do the work of marketing. Don’t get me wrong, I genuinely enjoy meeting readers; that’s not the tough part. The tough part is figuring out things like what tagline is going to be enticing, how should I write the back-cover blurb, what festival table display will catch the most interest, and what social media memes are going to draw the most attention. It’s an elusive magic formula that’s impossible to get right every time. Yeah, I’d much rather only work on writing or outlining the next book. But just like the “terrible twos” are part of raising children, and housebreaking is part of inviting a puppy into your life, marketing is part of writing books. You’ve got to do it. But it’s not my favorite part of the process.

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

DKP: When I was a kid, we didn’t have a television in the houses for several years. It broke and my parents took their time replacing it. So we read—a lot. I fell madly in love with books. They were so much more exciting for me than television. I liked being able to imagine through the words, putting my own spin on it all. As I got older, I discovered that words were so much more powerful than anyone had ever let on. In elementary school, words were the only way I could understand math. I had a modicum of success with story problems. In middle school, my attention to detail and a large vocabulary rewarded me with good grades on research papers and lots of passes to the library, which is far better than sitting in a classroom, any day. In high school, I was part of the theatre program. Storytelling helped me fit in when I felt mostly awkward. I cultivated a boat load of friends. They all “got” it.  Storytellers . . . I’d found my tribe.

As an adult, working in the corporate environment, learning to weave words helped me land better jobs, make more money in those jobs, and garner more appreciation from my boss and coworkers. Working in journalism taught me the value of story and how story impacts lives. I’d found my calling. Now, helping others experience the same joy found in words and world creation, I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life.

DL: Many thanks for joining us today, Diana. What are links to your books, website, and blog so readers can learn more about you and your work?

DKP: My author website is www.DKPWriter.com, and there’s a page there where people can read about my books, and order them in both print and ebook formats. For those die-hard Prime members, I also have an author page on Amazon.

My professional author website shares space with my Author Advocate and Publishing company website, www.PagesPromotions.com. There’s a lot going on in my little cyberspace, with tons of opportunities for readers to discover authors, and writers to discover literary services, including an episode schedule for Indie Reads TV, writing contests, community service projects, writer’s support groups, and so much more. I’ve even got a Blog Thingy page where I talk about writing craft things, post book reviews, and a host of other creative thoughts.

I’m a little exuberant with my level of engagement when it comes to bookish things, so don’t be too surprised at all the content. I welcome any and all contacts. I always give quarter, and never take prisoners.

Thank you for your kind invitation to share my story with you and your blog readers, Don. I genuinely appreciate it!

Two Poems about Summer

I haven’t been writing much poetry lately, but it wasn’t so long ago that I thought of myself exclusively as a poet. I had always written occasional poems—poetry for special occasions like weddings—but I identified as basically a fiction writer.

I came to love writing poetry, though . . . for the intense use of language,  of course, but also for the experience of writing a poem as opposed to a long work of prose, and most especially for the craft of poetry. I wrote a lot of poems, and they began appearing in print and e-journals, and I even brought out two small collections of poems.

I stopped for a variety of reasons, but mostly it was because I had to write a 300-plus page accreditation report for the school where I was teaching. It not only brought my poetry-writing and -publishing to a screeching halt, but it made me remember how much I enjoyed working in the marathon of the long prose form. So I started back to fiction.

I was reminded of all that this week when I saw a YouTube video by Michael Martin, a great friend and one of the most talented poets I know. In the video (you can watch it here), he reads two poems: his translation of a poem by Virgil and an original poem responding to the translation. Michael and I used to share poems with each other almost every day . . . one of us would churn one out and immediately send it off to the other for a response . . . we inspired and trusted each other.

Michael has continued writing poems, as well as lots of other things, and his video inspired me to drag a couple of my oldies out of the crypt for this week’s blog entry. The title of today’s post says, “Two Poems about Summer,” but of course they’re not really about summer. I picked them because they’re both set at exactly this time of year (August) and because they gave me the chance to revisit a couple of my favorites and share them with you.

41tTCxsax0L._AC_UL436_

The first one, “Et in Arcadia Ego,” I reworked a bit from its original version, but the second, “Steve Allen Returns to Weekly TV,” is pretty much as it appeared first in the online publication Tryst and then in my first collection, In Praise of Old Photographs (Little Poem Press, 2005). (BTW, that handsome devil on the cover is my grandfather.)

Enjoy.

 

Et in Arcadia Ego

About suffering they were never wrong, 
The Old Masters; how well they understood
Its human position.
    W.H. Auden

Standing waist deep in the water,

my older brother slaps a hand

on the surface of the startled round

blue sunny mouth of the above-ground pool

on the driveway in our back yard

to mark the seconds advancing

in the breath-holding contest.

Beside him, buoyant, his best friend

does a perfect dead-man’s float—

face down, arms outstretched, legs limp

and trailing in the water—

passing ninety-nine one-thousand

as tiny waves slosh over the edges

of the corrugated metal sides

burnishing a dark halo

in the sand cushioning the pool.

 

The day warm, the sky blue and cloudless

in Detroit in 1962.

 

“Aguirre on the mound,” announces

Ernie Harwell from the transistor

on the webbed chair beside the pool

where I am sitting, watching.

“Swing and a miss,” Harwell calls it

and a tinny approving murmur

issues from the ballpark’s August crowd

in the summer of my thirteenth year.

 

At once the door to the porch

off my brother’s second floor bedroom

flies open and our mother, stricken,

thrusts her head out. “Marilyn Monroe

died!” she cries, voice raspy from smoking,

her shocked grief compelling her

to notify someone, anyone, and

we are all she can find right now—

we for whom that churl death is still 

a stranger mocked by a boyish game

(“How long you can hold your breath,”

Death will chide back; “good practice for forever”),

unaware as we are this is how

it enters our lives, with the surprise 

burst of a swinging screen door.

 

Ears submerged but thinking from her tone

she is agitated about him,

the teenager still drifting face down

like a felled log lifts a calming hand

and sends her up an okay sign

while my brother keeps splashing his count—

up to one-hundred-twenty one-thousand—

as the cruel seconds race past.

 

 

Steve Allen Returns to Weekly TV (August 1967)

Lying shirtless and pantless in the heat

of an overwhelming Detroit summer

at the end of my seventeenth year

alone on an unmade narrow bed

watching the Steve Allen Show

through a murk of endless cigarettes

 

on a black and white TV with an unbent

hanger for an antenna, I imagined I dwelt

among the habitues of Hollywood Boulevard

who stopped along whatever path

they were traveling to stare into the red

eye of the camera trained on the street

 

for a slice of southern California life

primed to catch their random amblings

and report the findings out to America

for the amusement of the nation’s viewers

who, like me, laughed along with

the host’s high giggle and comic invention

 

of lives for ladies with shopping bags

bubbling over with ripe oranges

and hose drooping at thick ankles,

and crazy-eyed men with dirty

pants cinched with neckties bunched

around their waists, and young men

 

bare-chested as I was, raving

about the government’s intrusions

into their lives, and now and then

a man wearing, say, a shower cap

might wander down the street at the wrong

time and turn up on snowy screens

 

across the country, his story concocted

for the occasion, and what is amusing

about such desperation, you might ask,

and if you do then you must not be

staring down the maw of your eighteenth

birthday, or understand how

 

the dusk of LA is as desolate

as the cruel deserted nights of Detroit

or how a camera’s glare can peer into

the deepest fears of those who dream

their truest lives into being, or even

how these could converge with your own.

Indie Monday

Today’s guest: Thomas Galasso

0

Every other Monday, 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.

Today’s featured guest is the multitalented author, musician, actor, and teacher Thomas Galasso. Thomas received his bachelor of arts in English from Wayne State University, and eventually earned a teaching certification in Secondary English, Speech, and Drama. He also received a master of arts in English from Marygrove College. He has been teaching in Detroit Public Schools for over twenty years. He worked on another certification, and now teaches kids with Autism. His “serious hobby” is playing guitar, bass, a little harmonica, and singing. Thomas is the author of a novel, When the Swan Sings on Hastings (Aquarius Press, 2017), described in detail below.

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

DLThomas, welcome. Could you tell us a little about yourself?

TG: I was born and raised on the East Side of Detroit. My grandparents were immigrants from Italy and never spoke English fluently. My mother at five or six years old, remembered pulling into Ellis Island and got so excited, she started ringing the ship’s bell. My parents never graduated from high school, but they were serious about education. They sent my sister and me to Catholic school for twelve years. Early on in grade school, I was an avid reader and I used to make what is now considered graphic literature. My first story I ever wrote was in third grade. It was about a kid who wakes up and has a head of cabbage instead of his own head. I won some contest in school for it. However, I stole the idea from a similar story I read at the neighborhood library and then put my own spin on it. At the time, I didn’t understand plagiarizing or its crime, but I certainly was not going to say anything.

When I got to be a teen, we took the bus downtown to J.L. Hudson Department Store and I fell in love with exploring downtown. We also spent a lot of time at Belle Isle, as well. I took Creative Writing classes at Wayne State and then got involved in theater. After doing a dozen plays or so, I spent one year making a living on just acting. I joined Actor’s Equity, the Screen Actor’s Guild, and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, three unions I no longer belong to since I stopped paying dues. I studied acting at the University of Detroit and with famed actress/acting teacher/author, Uta Hagan, both here in Detroit and at her old HB Studios in New York City.

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

714JBcyWiWL._AC_UL436_

TG: My debut novel, When the Swan Sings on Hastings, is under the genre of historical fiction. It’s about a group of black and some white businessmen, numbers runners, hustlers, and Hastings regulars who face the destruction of their beloved neighborhood to make way for I-75 in an age of segregation. The neighborhood was razed from Gratiot all the way beyond Warren Ave.

The novel has a very interesting upbringing. It started as a bunch of dramatic monologues and then morphed into a one-act play that I wrote and directed for my drama class. It was performed at Detroit Northern High School where I taught. A year before I wrote the play, I was teaching drama at a DPS middle school. We put on a show every year for Black History Month that would include my drama class, the vocal music class, and the school band. The vocal music teacher, Ms. Rosalind Stearns-Brown, is also the daughter of Turkey Stearns, the Hall of Fame outfielder who played for the Detroit Stars of the Negro Leagues. His plaque is on the wall outside Comerica Park. (Ms. Stearns-Brown also sings the National Anthem every year for the Negro League series game at Comerica. Recently, she sang it at Keyworth Stadium in Hamtramck where the Stars once played.)

For Black History Month one year, she wanted to do “something about my dad” for our annual presentation. I wrote some monologues of three Negro League ballplayers, Stearns, Cool Papa Bell, and Jimmie Crutchfield as older men reminiscing about the old days.

Segue to a year later, and I rewrote the monologues into a one-act play that takes place on Hastings Street in Detroit’s historical Paradise Valley. I did research on the Negro League players and on Paradise Valley for the play.

This mash-up of Negro Leaguers and Hastings Street came about from my befriending blues musicians who played on Hastings. I bartended in Greektown in the ‘90s, and when I got off work I would go down to the now defunct Music Menu Bar on Monroe to listen to music. They had some great bands playing there. Through the great Detroit drummer, R.J. Spangler, I met Johnnie Basset, the famed blues guitarist who played on Hastings. I also met the extraordinary blues vocalist, Alberta Adams.

IMG_0775
Hastings Street in Detroit, ca. 1960. Photo credit: Detroit Historical Society

When they took their breaks, I was lucky enough to corner them at the bar and they would tell me stories about Hastings Street and its lively music scene and nightclubs and after-hours joints. One thing led to another, and I decided to bring the Negro League guys into the world of Hastings Street. I also decided a novel was more accessible to an audience than a play; one can read a novel anywhere, even on the other side of the world. (Actually, I know someone who read it in South Korea.)  So I took a deep breath and said, “Well, I think I can write a novel. We will see one way or another.”

My work in progress is a series of short stories—a dozen or so that have to do with “working Detroit.” Two, however, are set in San Francisco. Three of them will be published in a few months along with stories from three other Detroit writers, Diana Wolfe-Popa, Ryan Ennis, and Michael Schwartz, in a collection.

I pull my art from my work and life experiences. The characters in my new batch of short stories are all working people—waiters, orderlies, assembly line workers, and actors trying to scruff their way through. I am also working on a screenplay of my novel, When the Swan Sings on Hastings. I am co-writing it with Heather Buchanan, producer of AUX Media. We have a short film of the same name showing at the Royal Oak Main Theatre on August 28 at 7p.m. We are going to show the film and play some blues with a little band I put together. I play a numbers runner in the film. But I am most excited about the cast. Arthur Ray and Grover McCants, two acting veterans from Detroit, star in it. Shahida Hasan, a dynamic actress/vocalist, plays the “Aretha” role and sings her heart out.

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

TG: I write because it is who I am. Creating is very important to me, be it playing guitar, acting, or whatever kind of creative activity. I could take a more spiritual stance and say it is a gift from God, which I believe. It would be wasteful if I didn’t create. Ever since I was a kid, I was an avid storyteller and it is natural for me. In terms of accomplishment, I hope to give my readers a fulfilling experience that leaves an impression after they put the book down. I want to take them “there.” I want them to feel something—visually, emotionally-—I want them to touch, smell, and listen to the world I am creating for them. I want to take them to a place that I have living in my head and in my heart. I want them to get inside someone else and feel their joy, pain, or other emotion. I believe when we read, we see the world better, and not just from our own perspective.

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

TG: My writing process consists of rethinking incidents that I experienced in my life and finding the “literature” or the “story” in them. Everything in our mundane moments in life contributes to a bigger canvas or movie. I used to do a lot of writing with a glass of red wine or a pint of beer or at times a joint and sit in a corner at a bar and scribble away. Jack Kerouac called it “sketching.” I would sketch physical aspects of a room or people or conversations I overheard. I would scribble them down and then go home and within hours, maybe days or even weeks, I would take them and put them in a story with more meaning.

Then, there is the craft of the art. What can this story tell? What do I want my reader to feel? I love rewriting something I wrote months ago. I like to write and let it sit for a while and then come back to it with a clear head. A writer should not fall in love with one’s own words too much. Use only what drives the story. Pruning, cleaning up, watering, nourishing-—that is what I love. When I have nothing in the well, I stop. I play guitar and do other things, maybe act.

I can’t think of anything I don’t like about the writing process except forcing myself to write when I should be doing something else.

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

TG: Ever since I was a kid, I was told I was a good storyteller. I never looked at it that way. I just said, “Man, lemme tell you what happened today.” After reading bios on Hemingway and Kerouac, I found how we can take our everyday moments in life and make them something bigger than that moment. There is so much to be found in our simple daily lives. The beauty of literature is that it takes these simple moments and makes them so much more important, psychologically, emotionally, and intellectually. Every second of life is holy. There is a story in everybody and that is what makes being a writer so precious, exciting and yeah, HOLY.

DL: Many thanks for joining us today. What is the link to your book’s web site so readers can learn more about it?

TG: Thank you for giving me this opportunity. Here is the link to the Amazon page for When the Swan Sings on Hastings: https://amzn.to/2LKL4Gk.

 

 

 

 

“Where do you get your ideas from?” part I

Like many authors, when I’m speaking to people about my writing, I tend to hear similar questions, whether I’m talking to a group or to individuals.

One of the questions I often get is, “How long did it take you to write this book?” That’s an interesting one, and I’m not sure exactly where it comes from. I’ve never asked anybody who posed it, “Whaddaya wanna know for?” That would seem rather surly and ungracious, especially if I haven’t answered their question.

I’m guessing most people have little idea about what goes into writing a novel, so the only form of measurement that makes sense to them is time and that’s why they ask about it.

But without a doubt, the question I get most often is, “Where do your ideas come from?”

quote2

If I’m talking to people who either would like to write or have already started on the long road of becoming a writer, what they really want to know is, how can they go about finding ideas for their own writing. I usually give them some version of Henry James’s advice to young writers: “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost.” That is, be open to everything . . . what you read, what you hear, what you see, and so on.

For a general reader at a library presentation or a book fair, I tend to talk about where the ideas for a specific book came from. And, because nobody wants to hear a long story while they’re standing at a table, I’ll usually abbreviate it.

The truth is, of course, as always, more complex.

I’m not good at just making things up out of whole cloth, which is what many people (including many writers) think being a writer is all about. For me, I have to start at a specific place—with a kernel of an idea, which may come from an anecdote I’ve heard from someone, or an item I read in the newspaper or online or elsewhere that aroused my interest. When I write mysteries, this usually has to do with a crime or violation of the norm.

Also, because I like my books to be busy, from there I braid together that starting point with elements of other ideas, again taken from my mental file cabinet where I store all my possibilities. (I’ve tried writing these down, but I usually lose my notes.)

Let’s look at the fourth Martin Preuss mystery, The Forgotten Child, as an example of how this works.

TFC-Finalcover cropped jpeg copyIf you haven’t read the novel, here’s some context. (I’ll go easy on the spoilers.) The book is a departure from the first three books in that my main character, Martin Preuss, is now retired from the police department and is trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life once the thing that gave shape and meaning to his days has ended.

Thus he’s at loose ends when he’s asked to find someone who was last seen in the 1970s.

His search takes him back to the the art scene in the Cass Corridor in Detroit, and to the history of Ferndale, the inner-ring suburb of Detroit where he lives and works.

So where did all that come from?

When I finished the third book in the series, Guilt in Hiding, and started thinking about the next one, I knew I wanted to focus on more than just a crime, I wanted an event that had a critical impact on Ferndale.

My then-neighbor was president of the Ferndale Historical Society, and he told me about a huge fire that devastated a block in downtown Ferndale in 1975. He shared the Society’s archives with me, and he put me onto a book written by the former fire chief, which included a chapter on the fire.

That took care of the important civic event I was looking for, but I knew I needed to personalize it. Most of my books have family dysfunction at their centers, so I rifled through that mental file cabinet for a suitable direction.

I remembered hearing about several men of my acquaintance who, though currently married with families, had had a child with other women when they were young, and who had lost touch with those children over the years. One of these stories seemed like it would lend itself to a mystery novel that forced an investigator to go back in time to the 1970s, and would in addition be ripe for some compelling family drama.

These became the main strands of the plot of The Forgotten Child.

As I began to flesh out the missing person (or should I say, the missing person began to flesh himself out; this is the mysterious and exciting part of writing fiction), I realized he was an artist, and thus his link to the art scene in Detroit in the 1970s was a natural connection, as well as another likely source for more drama.

And the fire? My challenge was how to take this actual episode in Ferndale’s history and put it into a novel—to transform it from an episode in history to an integral part of the plot of a book.

I wouldn’t need to write an accurate history of the fire; historians and participants had already done that. But I would need to imaginatively transform an actual happening into a fictional event that would not only advance the plot of the book but would act as its center of gravity.

The poet Marianne Moore talks about poetry being “imaginary gardens with real toads,” and that’s what I found myself creating here.

I kept as many of the actual details of the fire in place as I could to give the events of the book authenticity and accuracy, while making them serve my own purposes. I kept the date of when it happened, the details of the fire itself (where it started, what damage it did, how it changed Ferndale), and the responses of local fire and police departments.

But because I was creating a work of fiction, I changed some details, some circumstances, and the outcome. I also switched the real people involved with my fictional characters. I changed some key details—specifically the cause of the real fire, which was never determined—to meet my own purposes in the book. I omitted some details to keep the story moving as quickly as possible.

I peopled the apartments in the building (as well as the entire novel) with imaginary characters. I call them “imaginary,” but they are “real toads”—people I might have known or seen at one time—living in this imaginary garden. (Don’t believe authors when we say we’ll never put you in our books; we always do.)

And finally, I set all this in a context consistent with the conventions of a mystery novel, with lots of bad actors and bad actions, most taken (again) from reality but transformed through the alchemy of fiction.

In the coming weeks (alternating with Indie Mondays), I’ll be talking about where the ideas came from for a few of the other books in the series, including the events that formed the inciting actions of the plots. I hope they’ll demonstrate my guiding principle: everything is fuel for a writer’s imagination.

 

 

Six Sure-Fire Ways to Kill Your Writers’ Group

I rarely take part in writers’ groups anymore. I totally get their usefulness—writers need support from peers, they need responses to their work from actual readers who won’t just say they loved it, a sharp reader can point something out that a writer might not have thought of, and so on. A good writers’ group can be beneficial, no doubt.

In large part, I don’t do it because it’s not how I work best. When I came of age as a writer, I learned to do most of my work alone. I wrote projects to order and under pressure of deadline; there wasn’t the time or the opportunity—or the expectation—to get other writers’ perspectives on what I was doing. My boss—or the client—had the final say.

In larger part, though, my avoidance of writers’ groups comes from my having run or taken part in so many of them over my careers as a writing teacher and writer. The other day, I  estimated how many writers’ groups I’ve been part of over the years. I came up with the semi-astonishing figure of roughly 1,200 groups over twenty-plus years, both inside and outside the classroom.

That’s 1,200 groups of writers, ranging in number from three to thirty, where people responded to each other’s stories, poems, novel drafts, or essays. I was either an active participant or a facilitator helping the writers themselves carry the conversations.

I was deep into collaborative writing, see. The whole being the “guide on the side” instead of the “sage on the stage” thing, to use one of the more ridiculous clichés of education that still makes me gag.

I thought a lot about the subject. I took courses in how to run writers’ groups. I attended workshops in how to do it. I even gave workshops for my colleagues and others in the benefits of writing groups and how to work with them.

In all that time, I saw how and why groups could be valuable. But I also saw what could go very wrong. In particular, I came to learn that certain behaviors will kill a writers’ group dead. If you’re a member of a writers’ group and you want to make your partners miserable, try some of these out:

Screen-Shot-2016-08-28-at-6.07.19-PM1. Everybody’s a Critic.

Interpret “critique” to mean “criticize mercilessly” (instead of, say, “offer careful judgment about”), and criticize the hell out of the workshopper (the one who reads or presents a piece for discussion). Pick every single nit you can find, from structure to grammar, regardless of what stage the draft is in. Find fault, instead of reflecting your responses to the piece back to the author, who can then make decisions about how well she/he framed the writing in preparation for revising.

It also helps if you gang up on the writer with other members of the group.

2. Do As I Say, Not As I Do.

Understand that your other main job as participant (besides telling authors what they did wrong) is to tell the writers what they need to do to improve the work. Regardless of your own experience of literature and writing, don’t be shy about telling the author what to do with a particular work. The wronger the advice, the louder you should insist on it.

3.Tu Casa Es Mi Casa.

Take over the author’s writing completely. Pay no attention to an author’s intentions, but respond to a piece of writing based on how you would have written it yourself. Don’t give the author any chance to make decisions about what to do or change based on how well you got what she/he was saying. This works especially well if you’ve never written anything like what the author is sharing.

4. If You Can’t Say Something Bad, Don’t Say Anything, Part 1.

Don’t mention any of the strengths of the piece, and don’t bother telling the author what you liked or appreciated about the work, or thought the author did well. Your job is to focus on the bad parts. The good parts are already good, aren’t they? Why talk about them?

25-man-battle-royal-WWE-Smackdown-17.2.2011

Besides, agents and editors aren’t going to go easy on a writer, so why should you? You’re helping to toughen up the workshopper. Writing group as WWF Smackdown!

5. If You Can’t Say Something Bad, Don’t Say Anything, Part 2.

Never mind articulating any questions you have about the piece, or points of confusion you wonder about, or interesting places where you’d like to hear more details; these might be too helpful. Your criticisms are enough.

6. I Object!

When you’re the workshopper, defend your draft loudly and vociferously. Don’t bother trying to learn from your partners’ responses and get ideas for revision, but instead show them how wrong they are in their appraisals of your work. If you have to explain or defend what you said, it just shows how little your responders get you (and how much smarter you are).

If you try all these strategies in your next writers’ group, I promise your group mates will develop some very special feelings for you.

If, on the other hand, you find yourself doing any of these, you might try to back off from them and maybe—just maybe—your writers’ group will be more enjoyable, and a whole lot more useful.

Brutal Reviews of Classic Books

As part of my efforts at getting my name out in the world, I’ve often asked (begged? cajoled? pleaded with?) my readers to write reviews of my books after they’ve read them. Most of us have done that at one time or another, right?

While generally things work out for the best, occasionally we do get a review that shows a reader was, shall we say, singularly unimpressed with our creative initiatives. The blogs are filled with advice on how to deal with bad reviews . . . some say don’t read them, some say read but disregard them, some say imagine the reviewers in their underwear, and so. My own way of dealing with the problem is to remind myself that even the best got lousy reviews, and it didn’t stop them.

Here’s a selective listing (culled from the Internet) of twenty scathing reviews of books that are now considered classics of literature. Most reviews were published contemporaneously with the books they review. They range from the snarky to the morally outraged, and they’re a good reminder that not every book is to every reader’s taste . . . and reviewers, like everybody else, are sometimes not very good at what they do.

Enjoy, have a laugh—and then get back to work!

 

51st3jro+xL._AC_UL436_

“Whitman is as unacquainted with art as a hog is with mathematics.” —The London Critic, 1855, on Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

“It is no discredit to Walt Whitman that he wrote Leaves of Grass, only that he did not burn it afterwards.” — Thomas Wentworth Higginson

 

Unknown-1

“The final blow-up of what was once a remarkable, if minor, talent. . . . This is a penny dreadful tricked up in fancy language and given a specious depth by the expert manipulation of a series of eccentric technical tricks. The characters have no magnitude and no meaning because they have no more reality than a mince-pie nightmare.” —The New Yorker on Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

 

51HD-1hpRDL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

“It was not necessary for a writer of so great refinement and poetic grace to enter the overworked field of sex fiction.” —Chicago Times Herald, 1899, on The Awakening by Kate Chopin

 

Unknown-4

“Miss Willa S. Cather in O Pioneers (O title!!) is neither a skilled storyteller nor the least bit of an artist.” —Dress and Vanity Fair Magazine

 

Unknown-13

The Great Gatsby is an absurd story, whether considered as romance, melodrama, or plain record of New York high life.” —L.P Hartley, The Saturday Review, 1925, on The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

 

51zSIATzDXL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

“Here all the faults of Jane Eyre (by Charlotte Brontë) are magnified a thousand fold, and the only consolation which we have in reflecting upon it is that it will never be generally read.” —James Lorimer, North British Review, 1847, on Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

 

61YZuVFUYIL._AC_UL436_

“That a book like this could be written—published here—sold, presumably over the counters, leaves one questioning the ethical and moral standards…there is a place for the exploration of abnormalities that does not lie in the public domain. Any librarian surely will question this for anything but the closed shelves. Any bookseller should be very sure that he knows in advance that he is selling very literate pornography.”  —Kirkus Reviews, 1958, on Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

“There are two equally serious reasons why it isn’t worth any adult reader’s attention. The first is that it is dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion. The second is that it is repulsive.” —New York Times on Lolita

 

81VyOzxVNyL._AC_UL436_

“A gloomy tale. The author tries to lighten it with humor, but unfortunately her idea of humor is almost exclusively variations on the pratfall. . . .Neither satire nor humor is achieved.” ⎯Saturday Review of Literature, 1952, on Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

 

Unknown-12

“Monsieur Flaubert is not a writer.” —Le Figaro, 1857, on Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

 

Unknown-9

“Never have I read such tosh. As for the first two chapters, we will let them pass, but the third, the fourth the fifth the sixth – merely the scratchings of pimples on the body of the boot-boy at Claridges.” —Virginia Woolf on Ulysses by James Joyce

“The average intelligent reader will glean little or nothing from it … save bewilderment and a sense of disgust.” —New York Times on Ulysses

“[Ulysses] appears to have been written by a perverted lunatic who has made a speciality of the literature of the latrine… I have no stomach for Ulysses.“—The Sporting Times, 1922

 

81UhKOBDrCL._AC_UL436_

“This is easily one of the worst books I’ve ever read. And bear in mind that I’ve read John Grisham.” Susan Cohen on Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With That Dragon Tattoo in the Charleston City Paper

 

91lLgU8yTtL._AC_UL436_

“I have two recommenda­tions. First, don’t buy this book. Second, if you buy this book, don’t drop it on your foot.” The New Yorker on Chesapeake by James Michener

 

71aeF1gCqxL._AC_UL436_

“Occasional overwriting, stretches of fuzzy thinking, and a tendency to waver, confusingly, between realism and surrealism.” —Atlantic Monthly on Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

 

Unknown-10

“[Kerouac] can slip from magniloquent hysteria into sentimental bathos, and at his worst he merely slobbers words.” —Chicago Tribune on On the Road by Jack Kerouac

“That’s not writing. That’s typing.” —Truman Capote on On the Road

 

Unknown-11

“Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ I want to dig her up and  hit her over the skull with her own shinbone!” —Mark Twain on Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen