Indie Monday

Today’s guest: J. Q. Rose

Me in mustang 400 x 300

With so many cancellations of in-person author events due to World War C, I’m devoting my blog to Indie Monday interviews for the coming months to help my fellow authors with promotion. I’ll be featuring indie and small-press 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 I’m happy to host prolific author J. Q. Rose. A resident of Western Michigan, she has written both fiction and nonfiction. Her nonfiction books include Girls Succeed!: Stories Behind the Careers of Successful Women (2014), Romance and Mystery Authors on Writing: Tips on the Writing Process, Publishing and Marketing (2015), Your Words, Your Life Stories: A Guide for Sharing Memories (2019), and Quick Tips on Vegetable Gardening: Starting Your Garden (2015). Her mysteries published by Books We Love Publishing are Terror on Sunshine Boulevard (2nd ed., 2019), Deadly Undertaking (2nd ed., 2019), and Dangerous Sanctuary (2nd ed., 2019).

Jan. 2020 JQ's books

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

DL: Could you tell us a little about yourself?

JQR: Hello Readers! Thank you, Don, for hosting me on your blog today! The trip from beautiful West Michigan to your place in cyberspace was lovely. I look forward to interacting with your readers.

Whether the story is fiction or non-fiction, I am “focused on story.”  I offer readers chills, giggles, and quirky characters woven within the pages of my mystery books. Using my storytelling skills, I provide entertainment and information in articles featured in books, magazines, newspapers, and online magazines. With my non-fiction book for girls, Girls Succeed! Stories Behind the Careers of Successful Women, I returned to my first love, writing about real people.

I taught elementary school for several years and never lost the love for teaching passed down from my teacher grandmother and mother. I satisfies the teaching aspect of my character by presenting workshops on Creative Writing and Writing Your Life Story.

When I’m not writing, I enjoy photography, playing Pegs and Jokers board games, and traveling with my husband. We spend winters in Florida and summers up north with our four grandsons and granddaughter.

DL: Tell us about your latest book and works in progress. 

I am a life storytelling evangelist! I believe every person’s story is important and should be shared as a gift to family and friends and/or published to get their message out into the hands of readers.

In November I self-published a journal, Your Words, Your Life Story: A Journal for Sharing Memories.The low content paperback book offers folks who are interested in telling their life story ways to begin what seems like an overwhelming project. I break it down into small bites. For folks who are not writers, I encourage them to use audio or video to tell their stories and suggest programs (apps) to do so.

For those who prefer to read eBooks, Your Words, Your Life Story: A Guide for Sharing Memories is also available with all the information, inspiring quotes and exercises as in the journal. You will have to provide your own journal or notebook. This is available at Amazon and major online booksellers.

At the moment I am writing a memoir, which is just one slice of a person’s entire life story. My husband and I pursued our dream of being entrepreneurs in the floral industry. So the story of the first year is about our move to a small town in Michigan to start our business. We did not have friends or family there, nor did we have any experience in selling flowers or operating a business. The only way to explain our bold move is that we were young. The book, Arranging a Dream: A Memoir,will be released January 2021 by BWL Publishing.

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

JQR: Because I am a wordsmith and love putting words together to make a story. What do you hope to accomplish with your writing? My purpose in writing fiction and non-fiction is to entertain and enlighten readers.

DL: Please talk about your writing process. Where do your ideas come from? What is your favorite part of the process? Least favorite?

JQR: My mysteries are sparked by news stories. Real life can be as unbelievable as fiction, so I tweak and twist the true life story to a fictional story filled with quirky characters and humor. My non-fiction books are about what interests me such as gardening, inspiring young girls to follow their dream and encouraging folks to write life stories.

My favorite part of the process is beginning the story where so many possibilities for characters, settings and twists in the story are available. My least favorite is culling out all the words, paragraphs or chapters that do not add anything to the premise of the book.

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

 JQR: Connections. Writing is a solitary job. I am so glad my crit group talked me into trying to publish my first novel. I almost felt guilty if I didn’t try after all the meetings we’d had together and the suggestions and thoughts they had on that story. If I hadn’t continued to write and publish, I would have missed so much. I made friends through writing that I could never have made. My horizon has widened by meeting folks from all over the world! I have plugged into thoughts from very smart people who share their world view so different from mine. I have connected with readers.

But the best part . . . my granddaughter thinks I’m famous! I took her with me to visit a talented children’s author in our town. My granddaughter chose a picture book and Jane autographed it for her. When we returned to the car, Aubrey said, “Now I know two famous people.”

“Two famous people? Who are they?”

She replied, “Jane and You!”

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

JQR: An up-to-date list of my books with blurbs and buy links is available on the page on my blog: https://www.jqrose.com/p/fiction-sunshine-boulevard-available.html.

Readers can connect online with me at my JQ Rose Blog—Focused on Story https://www.jqrose.com/.

Readers can click here to sign up for the J.Q. Rose Courier, delivered once a month to your inbox to keep up-to-date on news, sneak peaks, giveaways and fun from JQ: https://landing.mailerlite.com/webforms/landing/m7v2z3

Your Words, Your Life Stories: A Journal for Sharing Memories is available at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1702360571. The e-book version is available at Amazon and major online booksellers: https://books2read.com/u/4ExnDY.

My Facebook group to support those who are telling their stories, “Telling Your Life Story and Memoirs Circle” group, is accessible at https://www.facebook.com/groups/telllifestories/.

The Return of Toby

Last week I did an interview with Jeff Milo from the Ferndale Area District Library for his new podcast, “A Little Too Quiet.” We had a relaxed and wide-ranging conversation, including taking about my writing and background. As you might expect, we spent some time talking about my series of mysteries, the Martin Preuss mysteries, set in and around Ferndale.

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As I write this, the show is scheduled for the end of February 2020. You can listen to all the episodes of the podcast here: https://alittletooquiet.podbean.com/. Jeff’s conversations with other local authors (including Josh Malerman, Kathe Koja, and Michael Zadoorian) are thought-provoking and enjoyable.

Jeff and I also talked about my more recent writing. The last pieces I’ve published have been in a different genre from the mystery novels: they are a pair of dystopian novellas. One, “The Bright and Darkened Lands of the Earth,” appears in an anthology, Postcards from the Future: A Triptych on Humanity’s End (Quitt and Quinn Publishers and Whistlebox Press, 2019) along with the works of two other fine writers, Wendy Sura Thomson and Andrew Lark.

My other novella is a stand-alone sequel to “The Bright and Darkened etc.” published separately as The Exile (Poison Toe Press, 2020).

Writing dystopian fiction—or really post-apocalyptic fiction, as my two recent works are—turned out to be more taxing than I thought it would be.

I have to admit, at first it was fun.

I had published six Preuss mystery novels in a row from 2011 to 2019, and I felt like I was getting stale. I thought turning to dystopian fiction last year in response to an invitation from Andrew Lark (who spearheaded the Postcards project) would be a good change. It would let me take a break from mysteries, and indulge one of my long-time pleasures, post-apocalyptic fiction and films.

After I wrote the first novella, I had an experience that I’ve never had before, even with the Preuss series . . . an entire world sprang up in my brain as I thought about the characters, their situations, and their world, and I could see possibilities for continuing to write about them in several more novellas. My plan evolved into writing The Exile and maybe two or three more installments set in that world, and then combine them all into one large work.

I took to thinking about the different pieces as part of The Dry Earth Series—so called because the action takes place in a world devastated by climate catastrophes.

And here’s where it starts to get depressing.

I think of these novellas as “speculative fiction,” to use the term that Margaret Atwood uses: fiction that begins with current conditions, and then engages in a kind of thought experiment to project forward in order to imagine how things might turn out, given where we are starting from. She’s a master of it in works like The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, and most recently The Testaments.

Several current trends came together in “The Bright and Darkened Lands of the Earth—not only the climate disasters that we are starting to see already (vide Australia burning), but also emerging global pandemics (vide the coronavirus), the breakdown of our lawful democratic system and the failure of the American experiment (vide your news today), looming failures in agriculture leading to widespread famine (vide Monsanto’s latest annual report) . . . all of these converged to create the nightmarish hellscape of “The Bright and Darkened Lands of the Earth.”

And I continued to explore their impacts in The Exile.

And not by simply discussing the problems themselves, of course, but rather by showing their devastating effects on the desperate lives of individual characters.

Without getting into spoilers, it’s not a pretty picture.

The more I wrote about the world of the Dry Earth Series, the more all the problems I was writing about—climate devastation, cultural suicide enacted daily in the political sphere, an uninhabitable earth, mass extinctions of plants and animals, violence released into the air along with lingering radiation—began to seem so possible.

Even, unfortunately, so likely.

As this country seems to be embracing its own apparently inexorable dystopian future, thinking seriously about the kinds of nightmares the future holds became more and more difficult and disheartening for me.

My mental state, already reeling and fragile from the corruption and mean-spirited, willful stupidity spewing nonstop out of Washington, began to decline even further.

I decided I need a break from my break.

The solution was simple: for my next project, I’m going to return to the world of Martin Preuss and his son Toby.

After I finished “The Bright and Darkened Lands of the Earth” and sent it off to the editor, I launched into the seventh Preuss book and finished about 13,000 words on the draft. I stopped when the novella came back from the editor, and then I found one of the characters in the novella to be so compelling that I began another manuscript that turned into The Exile.

Talking to Jeff Milo about the Preuss series made me realize how much I missed the characters of Martin Preuss and most especially Toby.

Toby, who brings so much light into his fictional father’s life, does the same for me. Profoundly handicapped, he is an accurate and loving portrait of my grandson Jamie. Toby is a source of enormous comfort, joy, and wisdom for his father, as Jamie was for those of us who knew and loved him.

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Jamie Kril, the model for Toby Preuss

Regretfully, Jamie is no longer with us. But while we were privileged to have him, Jamie taught us so much about love, patience, the necessity for presence in one’s life, and what is really important in a world that seems crazier and more out-of-control by the day.

Writing about Toby, and showing how sweet and loving he is and how important he is in his father’s life (and, indeed, the lives of everyone he touches), gives me the chance to celebrate his great gifts, and by extension the gifts of all the children and people like Toby and Jamie.

We need that now, more than ever.

So that’s what’s next for me. I’m shelving the harsh, nightmarish, disintegrating world of the Dry Earth Series, and returning to the world of Martin and Toby—which is harsh and nightmarish in its own way, but at least tends toward order and social reintegration. Crimes are solved, mysteries are cleared up, criminals are held accountable.

And at the end of each day, a regenerating visit with his dear Toby always awaits investigator Martin Preuss.

My sabbatical from dystopian fiction might turn into a “Mondical and a Tuesdical,” as folksinger Lee Hayes said about The Weavers’ enforced break from music during the McCarthy hearings in the 1950s. Right now it’s hard to tell.

Regardless, look for the next entry in the Martin Preuss series in the fall of 2020. I can’t give out any details of the plot just yet—except to say that due to overwhelming demand from my readers, Martin Preuss may—just may—finally get a girlfriend.

Stay tuned.

In the meantime, when you have a chance, please have a listen to Jeff Milo’s podcast at https://alittletooquiet.podbean.com/.

 

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.

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 . . .  

“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?”

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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.

 

 

The First Two Chapters of Cold Dark Lies

This week’s blog post is a teaser: the first two chapters of the latest Martin Preuss mystery, Cold Dark Lies.

The ideas for the book go back a long way. As in all the novels, the final version braids together several strands that come from “real” life. The main plot thread comes from an article I read in a Detroit newspaper many years ago about an auto executive from Bloomfield Hills who was found dead in one of the no-tell motels in Ferndale. It was a minor blip in the news day, but it stuck with me all this time. I was intrigued by the dissonance between his privileged, upper-middle class existence and his desire (or need) to take a walk on the wild side at the skeevy motel, with tragic results for himself and the family he must have left behind.

The idea for one of the subplots in the book comes from a student who came to talk to me once about a research study she was undertaking to find out if she was really related to a criminal gang in Detroit in the 1920s, as family lore had insisted.

As always, by the time both of these threads made it to the final version, I had changed much—characters, situations, names, details, circumstances, motivations, and so on. Then I set it all in an imaginary context consistent with a mystery story—so I made up lots of bad actors, bad actions, and events that didn’t happen . . . but that could have. 

At first, I imagined the motel guy as a character in a poem called “The Secret Life,” but I knew there was more to the story than the poem could explore. When I started thinking about the next book in the series after An Uncertain Accomplice, I took the story out of my back pocket where I had kept it all these years and started thinking about using it in a Preuss mystery.

This is pretty typical of how I’ve been working with these books. Only in the first book, Crimes of Love, did I make up the inciting episode; in all the rest, I started out with a situation I knew about either because somebody told me the story or I read about it somewhere. (Henry James’s advice to writers: “Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.”) After that, it was a matter of imaginatively transforming the original real inciting situations to make them fit with my own purposes and the demands of the plots.

So here’s the beginning of how that process turned out in Cold Dark Lies. Enjoy!

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Thursday, September 13, 2012

The hammering brought him back. Loud, insistent pounding on the door. And raised voices outside. And the door handle jiggling. Then more pounding.

He opened his eyes in darkness and rolled his head over the rug where he was sprawled. The smell was unpleasant: damp, sour, musty.

From where he lay, limbs outstretched, his eyes focused on the stumpy and scuffed legs of the bed, the tangle of clothes on the floor, the peeling caramel feet and brown cracked leather of the arm chair, turned on its side. The thick wall of the dresser.

The effort exhausted him. He closed his eyes. He was so tired. Why couldn’t he just sink back into that void where he floated before the pounding on the door roused him?

The banging stopped. The voices receded.

Silence outside.

He listened. Silence in the room, too.

Was he alone?

He lifted his head. Intense pain shot through his neck and temple. As through every other part of his body, he now realized.

He didn’t hurt before—he didn’t feel much of anything—but now he was conscious of sharp aches in his head, ribs, face . . .

He licked his lips and tasted the thick, sweet tang of blood.

He raised his right arm and saw the sleeve of his white shirt rolled up to the elbow. The golden red hair that had furred his forearm ever since he turned fourteen. Around his wrist, the sleek black Fitbit, and, on the third finger of his hand, the ring his ex-wife had given him when he graduated Michigan State—the head of a Spartan warrior carved in intaglio carnelian in a gold setting, like a temple.

And flopping lazily from the crook of his elbow, a syringe still stuck into a vein, pulling at the skin.

Oozing a dribble of blood down to the threadbare, colorless weave of the carpet.

How did that get there?

He couldn’t remember how.

Or why.

Or when.

He wanted to make sense of his situation, but thinking was too hard. His mind was too foggy.

He lowered his arm. In the silence of the room, blackness began to close back in on him, slowly, like a cloth fluttering down over his face.

He was relieved when his thoughts, too, began to close down. No more thinking. Not about what he was doing here, or anything else.

He closed his eyes. Gradually his pain eased, and he welcomed the release. There was only silence.

And finally there was nothing.

 

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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

“He was a bad one,” the woman said, and gave her head a sad shake, as though the memory itself hurt.

Martin Preuss waited for her to go on, but she said nothing more. She seemed lost in thought, gazing at the blank wall behind him. He sat with her in what she called the parlor, the front room in her large home in the Boston-Edison Historic District of Detroit. The place smelled of cat pee and old wood, the sweetish-sour odor that reminded Preuss of his childhood home.

All that was missing was the sound of his father raging upstairs while the rest of the family tiptoed around downstairs so they wouldn’t disturb “Daddy’s work.”

Unlike his family’s minimalist home, this one resembled a comfortable museum, with heavy wooden settees and huge armchairs from another age and lush Oriental rugs on the hardwood floors. In the other room, Preuss had noticed a massive Steinway grand piano when the woman, Sarah Posner, invited him in.

She lived here alone with her three cats, so their conversation was interrupted only by her memories. She had lived in this house for decades with her late husband and their three children, who were now grown and scattered across the country.

“You did know him, then,” Preuss prompted, to bring her back from her remembrance.

“Oh, yes,” she said. Her eyes returned from the past to land back on him with a bright intensity. She was small and hunched in the wingback chair where she sat. Her skin was the color and texture of old parchment, and the knuckles of her hands were swollen and stiff as she gripped the arms of her chair. Wisps of white hair peeked from the turban she wore.

“We all knew about him,” she continued. “Izzie was already in prison by the time my Morrie and I were married. But Morrie know him when he was little. Izzie was Morrie’s great-uncle, you see. I didn’t meet Izzie until he got out of prison. He was an old man by then. Old and defeated. And, you know, Morrie’s family used to talk about them. Izzie and his cousin Leon both. Morrie knew Leon, too, but Leon was killed in the thirties, so I never met him.”

She thought for a few moments longer, then said, “They were all bad boys.”

She drew her mouth together in a pinched frown of disapproval.

“They reflected so badly on us,” she said. “It’s one thing to say, all right, they were immigrants, they had to make a place for themselves, it was a bad time, they had no other skills. But it’s another to look at what they did and how they did it. So cruel. And to know people would look at them and think they represented us all. People in this city already had enough reasons to hate us, between the poison they heard from Henry Ford and Father Coughlin.”

She fell into silence as she reflected on her family.

Preuss sketched a fast diagram of the connections in his notebook. When he got back to his office, he would have to draw out a more detailed chart of the family relationships.

“You’ve never met my client?” he asked.

“No,” she said. “Until you called, I’d never heard of her. But now I think I’d quite like to meet her.”

“I’m sure she’d like to meet you, too.”

“Maybe you could set something up,” Sarah said. “She could come for tea.”

“You can probably fill in a lot of family history for her. She seems hungry for it.”

The woman nodded absently, and he wondered if she was off on another reverie.

He had asked her about her family’s connections with members of the Purple Gang, the group of Jewish criminals around Detroit in the 1920s. They began as shakedown artists and petty thieves and wound up controlling the local bootleg liquor trade from Canada during Prohibition, subsequently hiring themselves out as hitmen and enforcers.

Preuss’s client was a college student named Beverly Frankel. She hired Greene and Preuss, Investigations, to track down a rumor in her family that they were related to a few of the Purples. His search led him to this 95-year-old woman and the genteel poverty of her mansion.

According to Sarah Posner, the Frankel family’s stories about their links to the gang were true.

But the family connections were to two cousins who were among the most savage of the crew, so Preuss didn’t know how his client would react to the news. She struck him as someone looking more for colorful, romantic stories of outlaws to tell her friends, but Isadore Adler and Leon Glick’s bombings, assassinations, and brutal enforcement methods weren’t the stuff of romance.

Like many cases he had worked since joining Emmanuel Greene’s detective firm after retiring from the Ferndale Police Department’s Detective Bureau, the lesson here was, don’t ask questions you might not want answered.

Before he could ask the woman any more about her relations, he felt his phone vibrating in his pocket.

“Sorry,” he said.

“Do you have to get that?”

“Let me just check,” he said. “It might be about my son.”

He glanced at the screen. It wasn’t about Toby; the call was from Rhonda Citron, the administrative manager of the detective agency.

“Excuse me,” he said, “it’s my office. I should take this.”

She raised a wan hand in permission and took another sip of her tea. She stared into the air, as though she could see images floating there of the past they had been talking about.

He stood and walked to the parlor’s bay window looking out on the broad, manicured lawns of Edison Boulevard. He connected the call. “Rhonda,” he said.

“Are you still at your appointment in Detroit?”

“I am.”

“For much longer?”

“I think we’re almost done. What’s up?”

“Manny has a one o’clock meeting with a new client and he just called,” Rhonda said. “He’s going to be late. He wanted to know if you could take it for him. He said he doesn’t want the client sitting around waiting.”

He held the phone away from his ear to check the time. Twelve-thirty.

“I can just make it,” he said. “You might have to stall the appointment a little.”

“Great. I’ll let Manny know. Things okay there?”

“I found the link I was looking for. I just need to nail down the next steps. I’ll wrap things up and see you soon.”

He disconnected and returned to the parlor. “Unfortunately, I’m going to have to get back,” he said. “Mrs. Posner, could we talk again?”

“Anytime,” she said. “I don’t know how much more I can tell you, but . . . next time, why don’t you bring Miss—what was her name?”

“Frankel.”

“Bring her when you come. I’d like to meet her.”

“Excellent,” said Preuss. “I’ll set it up.”

Sarah Posner said she would look forward to it.

 

[Interested in reading more? Find Cold Dark Lies at Amazon.com or order it through your local bookstore or directly from me at donaldlevin.com.]

 

Promoting Depth in Fiction

In a recent conversation, author, editor, and publicist Diana Kathryn Plopa mentioned how struck she is by what she called all the layers in my books.

I’ve been reflecting on how much I appreciated that comment. We all like to hear nice things about our books, but Diana’s remark about layers particularly resonated with me. I understood her to mean a kind of richness of meaning in the stories and characters that she finds in my work.

Diana’s comment was so interesting because that’s just the term that I use in thinking about my novels: layering.

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Remember those transparencies in old-fashioned biology textbooks? Layered atop an image of the human body, one transparency would have bones, another would show muscles, another would have organs, blood vessels, nerves, and so on. Put them all together and you get a full picture of the fullness and complexity of the human body.

Novels (and not just mine) can have a similar kind of depth. It doesn’t happen accidentally, but results from working the following “overlays” into the books.

1. One layer consists of conventions of the genre or type of writing, including reader expectations.

For example, for a crime novel (my own genre), conventions might include a crime or some violation of the personal, social, or political order; efforts to solve the mystery or find the perpetrator (often this is the focus of the mystery novel; think of the “Law” part of “Law and Order”); the perpetrator is brought to justice (the “Order” part of “Law and Order”); and the world is either set right or order and law are not re-established.

Often a particular kind of crime novel will focus on one or more of those elements. A mystery novel like the Martin Preuss mysteries (to take just one example chosen completely at random) would focus on the efforts to solve the mystery or find the perpetrator of the violation of the order.

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To take another example, in heist novels like Donald Westlake’s (writing as Richard Stark) Parker books, or a movie like Baby Driver, plot conventions include planning the crime, the meeting/gathering of participants, execution of the crime with ensuing complications, and resolution or justice (or not).

Conventions may also include character types, that is, recurring kinds of characters. Many mysteries offer variations on the eccentric, socially maladjusted genius, a type that comes down to us from Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin and includes all his modern counterparts, such as Sherlock Holmes in literature and Dr. House and Monk on TV, as well as the solitary counter-authoritarian knight-errant like Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, or Lew Archer, to name just three examples.

Along with these conventions come the expectations the reader brings, such as that she will be challenged, misled, or misdirected along with way, or that the heist will not go well, involving double- or triple-crosses.

On top of this overlay, add:

2. Elements of the setting—the place or places where events happen

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Setting not only supplies the locations for the action (not only names and specific locales, establishments, and so on, but also history, politics, media, etc.). Setting also suggests actions and language arising from places, provides characters particular to certain places, and helps set the tone of the books. Think of how historical mysteries accomplish all of these; think also of what Elmore Leonard’s Detroit setting means for his books. The setting is always crucial.

Finally, on top of these, overlay:

3. An author’s individual concerns: recurring characters and character types, themes, styles

Read enough of any author’s work and you’ll find certain constants. In my mysteries, for example, there’s always a sympathy for marginal characters; a focus on the cascading effects of greed, violence, and misplaced loyalties; issues of social class; and care of a son with cerebral palsy. Here is where an author’s particular point of view and insights turn stock flat characters in round, living people.

I also have another concern that serves as what I think of as the heart of the Preuss series (besides sweet Toby, that is), informing each book. 

As I’ve noted elsewhere in my blog posts, at this moment in history, I believe we need a literature that allows us to enter imaginatively and empathetically into the experience of others, individuals as well as the group, and be transformed. As Camus said in one of his essays, “In a world whose absurdity appears to be so impenetrable, we simply must reach a greater degree of understanding among men, a greater sincerity. We must achieve this or perish.” This echoes Auden’s line “We must love one another or die,” from his great poem, “September 1, 1939,” and what Susan Sontag meant when she wrote, 

sontag“A novel worth reading is an education of the heart. It enlarges your sense of human possibility, of what human nature is, of what happens in the world.”

In my writing, I’m trying to expand our sympathies and sense of the world. Writing mystery fiction allows me to enter into the minds and hearts of characters acting under the stresses and extremities of crime and see the world through their eyes, and help readers see it as well.

(This is the reason I get a little nuts when I hear a writer talk about writing for “self-expression.” I remember hearing poets and their critics/interpreters talking about “the self,” and images of the self, and the poetry of self, and the self’s multiplicity, and so on. I’m not a fan of the kind of solipsistic, cryptic writing that results from this approach.)

I want to tell a good story, sure, but I also want the reading experience to be more than simply a pleasant way to pass a few hours. I’m hoping that when readers finish my novels, they will be transformed somehow—even if it’s a slightly expanded understanding of what it takes to care for a child with handicaps, or acknowledge how the effects of violence cascade down through generations, or even appreciate the way a grief-stricken detective tries to do his best in a world rife with corruption.

Such transformations are my ultimate intention, and I rely on the layering strategy I talked about here to accomplish it. 

Whether or not I succeed, of course, is up to my readers.

Why I Stopped Writing

 

It is a truth universally acknowledged that for most people who want to write, the urge begins early in life.

So it was with me. I can’t remember a time when I was young when I didn’t want to be a writer, even when I didn’t know exactly what that meant. I just knew I loved reading, and the natural partner to that was making up my own stories. I’m not sure where that came from. My parents weren’t readers; the only books we had in our house when I was growing up were the ones in my room. But I was a voracious reader in our library at Bagley Elementary School (my favorite books were the Tom Corbett, Space Cadet series) (yes, I am that old), and lying in bed at night I used to pretend my hands were the characters and I would act out stories with them (most of which ended in finger/thumb fistfights accompanied by much tongue-clucking sound effects). 

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One day my father brought home an old monster manual typewriter from his office. As soon as I started playing with it, I realized from the letters that appeared through its raucous clacking that I had found my instrument, the same way a pianist is moved by the note made by the first touch of cool ivory on a keyboard. At one point, somebody gave me a toy printing press—surely an act of almost psychic precognition—and I started printing up my little stories.

My reading habits were helped along by my painful, almost pathological shyness while growing up. It seriously curtailed my social development, but gave me all the time I wanted to read everything I could get my hands on. While other kids were out playing sports or going on dates, I was the quintessential bookworm, holed up at home discovering new authors and plowing through as much of their work as I could find.

As I grew older and life took shape for me with more clarity, I followed the well-trodden path of young writers everywhere. (I hate the term “aspiring writer” . . . to paraphrase a certain short green Jedi master: write or do not write, there is no aspire.) I wrote my stories and sent them out, got my rejections, revised the stories, and sent them out again. Occasionally I wrote a poem that was also rejected, but for me, fiction was where the heavy lifting of literature took place, so that’s what I concentrated on, with the aim of working my way up to writing novels.

I sent stuff out; I got it back. Once in a blue moon, I placed a story with some small journal or other, and that was enough to keep me going for a while. But for the most part, I sent work out; I got work back. This was pre-internet, so there were no online publication opportunities. There was no online, no internet, no word processing, just a typewriter and the US mail.

I kept at it despite the rejections, which is what people tell you to do. It goes out, it comes back. Sooner or later, I believed, if something was good enough, it would find a home.

Stories went out, they came back.

Then novel drafts went out, and they came back.

Lather, rinse, repeat. 

Finally, one day, when I was in my thirties, I thought all my hard work had paid off. I had written a mystery novel (The Ramp of the Chinese Dog), and after making the rounds of agents, I found one who accepted me. He was the real deal, the guy who sold a pair of books that became the blockbuster movie The Towering Inferno. I thought I was in.

I went to meet him in New York City, taking the bus down from Binghamton, where I was living at the time. He told me he was “cautiously optimistic”; I remember the words to this day, as well as his soothing voice. He believed in the book. He believed in me. My spirits soared. Success was in sight.

Except now he was the one sending the manuscript out and getting it back. Periodically he would send me the pile of rejection notes he got from publishers, and they were not helpful (but were, gallingly, peppered with typos, grammatical errors, and misinformation about the book).

Finally, after three years of this, he returned the manuscript to me. “Sorry,” he said. “I like the book, but I just can’t do anything more with it.”

I sent him another manuscript that I had written in the meantime. He sent that one back, too. “Sorry, no.”

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I was crushed.

After trying to break into publication for all of my twenties and most of my thirties, experiencing virtual nonstop rejection, I was back where I started. Cynthia Ozick writes about the little holy light like a pilot light that keeps a writer going. Mine went out.

This writing life must not be for me, I decided. I’m just not good enough. Don’t have what it takes. So I gave up writing fiction. It was painful, even devastating. I had failed at the one thing I had wanted to do since I was little.

Failure: a terrible word for someone in love with words.

But I still thought I had some chops as a writer, just not a fiction writer; I had already worked several public relations jobs. In what I now understand was despair-fueled self-flagellation in penance for my failure, I joined a small advertising agency as a copywriter. If I can’t publish the stuff I want, I thought, I’ll become a hack. I turned away from literature; I turned away from reading. I turned away from writing about important subjects and instead churned out dreck like copy for rebate ads for Masonite paneling, and news releases for small town jewelry stores.

And yet I did well in that world. Working freelance after getting fired from the ad agency for having a bad attitude (big surprise), I wrote reports and proposals and video scripts for companies like General Electric and IBM. I once wrote a video program promoting military attack helicopters for two wild-eyed crazies at IBM who ranted about the joys of “killing tanks” like a couple of tweakers playing video games.

When my wife and I moved to New York City so she could take a job teaching at Long Island University in Brooklyn, I found more work there. I wrote grant proposals and project summaries and donor appreciation letters for the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center Fund in upper Manhattan. I took a job as speechwriter for the Commissioner of the NYC Department of Health and wrote literally hundreds of speeches, articles, testimonies, and newspaper editorials on AIDS/HIV, tuberculosis, window falls, pit bulls, child-care centers, and restaurant inspection scandals, among other public health issues. I wrote op-eds on needle-exchange programs for the New York Times and the Journal of the American Medical Association. The commissioner was delivering my speeches in Washington to Congressional committees; the mayor of New York was using my speeches to promote anti-smoking legislation at Sloan-Kettering.

It came to pass that working at such a high level of productivity and visibility, the writing I was doing for others relit that little holy pilot light. I started thinking about returning to fiction, and about writing under my own name. About the importance of stories in our lives.

The other thing that happened around this time was the birth of my grandson Jamie, whom I’ve mentioned before and whose presence had profound effects on me and everyone around him.

Except as soon as I thought, Man, I’d really to like do some imaginative writing again, the equal and opposite thought arose: Why? Do you really want to enter that world of rejection again? Seriously?

The answer, of course, was no. As much as I wanted to write fiction again, I couldn’t bear the thought of sending my work out and getting back into the cycle of rejection, especially after working so hard to wrestle back my confidence. So I resisted the urge, and instead retreated to private journal entries that alternately (1) agonized over my need to write fiction, and (2) scolded myself for even thinking about giving in to it.

But here was the problem: that little pilot light? It was on again. And the pressure to write fiction continued to build, along with my conflicted feelings about what that would mean.

When I started to have angry thoughts about pushing people off of subway platforms, I knew I had to do something.

So I screwed my courage to the sticking point and started another novel. Not a mystery, but a mainstream book about a group of people who lived together in one house in an effort to create a new type of family. I learned to put out of my mind any thoughts about what I would do with the manuscript once I finished it—and once I started, I knew I would finish. I brought to this new project all the disciplined work habits and writing skills that I had honed over the years I spent writing other people’s stuff. It took a few years, but the result was a novel, The House of Grins.

A1325325-BC74-488F-AC22-29C390E02462But what to do with it?

A friend put me in touch with an editor he knew at one of the big NYC publishing houses. When I called the editor, she told me to send her the manuscript, and if she “really loved it” she would recommend publishing it. Her tone of voice dripped with the kind of derisive smarm very few can match outside NYC publishing; it told me the chances of her “loving it” were somewhere between zero and fuhgedaboudit. To spite her, I decided not to send anything (I showed her!).

In the interregnum between my fleeing from imaginative writing and returning to it—a ten-year gap—a new development had begun in publishing. Prompted by advances in technology, the self-publishing movement was just starting to take off in the ‘90s, apart from the dreaded “vanity press” industry. I discovered that I could take back the means of production, like independent filmmakers and almost every other artist. 

But more: in those ten years, I grappled with what success as a writer really meant, and more importantly what it wasn’t. I met editors, and became an editor myself, and realized how capricious and unpredictable the process really is.

I came through that decade of despair by learning that—yes—the writing and the changed qualities of mind and heart that accompany writing really are more important than the faux approval suggested by acceptance by others. As if that insight broke some self-imposed spell, in the years since I fantasized pushing people off subway platforms, I’ve published seven novels (six in the Martin Preuss mystery series), two books of poetry, a handful of stories, and dozens of poems in print and online journals.

That voice shouting in your ear, the voice my friend Jerry van Rossum personifies as “Sid”—Self-Inflicted Doubts—never goes away. But with practice and wisdom, you can silence it long enough to get some good work done.

And in the end, that’s really all that matters. 

Indie Thursday

[My Monday blog post took a Memorial Day break, but it’ll back next week.]

Today’s guest: Mark Love

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Today I’m happy to offer another Indie Thursday entry. Periodically, 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. Their writing is first-rate, and they’ll take you places you’ve never been before.

Today’s featured guest is Mark Love. A friend and fellow mystery writer, Mark is the author of two mystery series: the Jamie Richmond mystery series, including the novels Devious, Vanishing Act, Fleeting Beauty, and Stealing Haven, and a story in the anthology Once Upon a Summer; and the Jefferson Chene mystery series, including Why 319? and the newly-published Your Turn to Die.

Recently I had the opportunity to pose some questions to Mark. Here’s what he told me.

DL: Mark, welcome. Could you start by telling us a little about yourself?

ML: I was born and raised in metropolitan Detroit and lived there for many years. From an early age I enjoyed getting lost in a good story. As a teen, I discovered the great John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series and quickly became hooked on mysteries. A while later it was Elmore Leonard’s work that caught my attention. It became a goal to someday write a mystery.

Growing up in Detroit, there was always a lot on the news about crime and scandals. I would follow stories and try to figure out who was behind such activity and imagine unraveling the case. At one point I was working as a freelance reporter for a couple of area newspapers. One of my assignments was a crime beat, visiting police departments in Oakland County. That was the equivalent of turning a kid loose in a candy store. I learned a lot and it helped sharpen my writing skills.

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

ML: The latest book, just published in print and audiobook, is Your Turn to Die. It’s the second book in the Jefferson Chene Series.

perf5.000x8.000.inddChene is a Sergeant with the Michigan State Police, part of a squad of detectives that work on major cases. Most of their assignments center around investigations that cover multiple municipal jurisdictions. This story is about a successful businessman who is murdered at a paintball game. With over a hundred suspects to consider, Chene and his team know this won’t be an easy case to solve. It doesn’t take long to figure out that this victim was no choirboy and more than one person wanted him dead. Every turn brings out more suspects. Soon they’re looking into illicit affairs, possible connections with organized crime, and a fortune in jewels.

Currently I’m working on the third book in the series. I’m also considering dusting off a novel I wrote years ago and bringing that up to date.

My story ideas can be triggered by anything. I’ll start with the germ of an idea and kick it around in my head for a while. If it gains a little traction, I’ll write a couple of pages and see where it leads.

DL: You’ve published quite a few works of fiction. Why do you write? What do you hope to accomplish with your writing?

ML: I think we all have stories to share. For me, it’s a chance to entertain. Maybe you’ll grow to like my cast of characters and see some traits you can recognize or relate to. I always share a little local flavor along the way. All of my novels take place in the Motown area and often include local venues that many readers may be familiar with. That’s something as a reader I enjoy.

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

ML: Despite all those years at Catholic school (yes, I still bear the scars from the nuns wielding their rulers), I can’t write with an outline. It’s too restrictive. So I’ll begin with an idea and one of my main characters, like Jamie or Chene, and see where it goes. More than once, I’ll be writing a scene when suddenly it takes a dramatic ninety-degree turn.  Upon review I know it’s perfect but it wasn’t anything planned. It just happens. The characters make the transition and I follow along.

I will write scenes as they occur to me. Then it’s a matter of weaving them into the timeline of the story where they make the most sense. As one of the nuns in elementary school would say, “crude, but effective.”

Dialogue to me is the most fun. It’s crucial to the story and can help convey so much information. And there are emotions that can be shown as well. The dialogue can make the difference between a great story and a dud.

My least favorite part? Editing is tough. It’s difficult to trim your work, to shape it, to make it flow better. But it’s so important. I’ve gone through some novels half a dozen times before submitting it to a publisher, only to do it again while working with an editor. But the end results are definitely worth it.

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

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ML: Once I seriously started writing, I was pleasantly surprised at how the stories came together. Writing is not easy. It’s a lot of hard work. But when I’m able to finish a book or short story, there is a true sense of accomplishment. When those efforts have then been selected by a publisher and come to life in print, that just sweetens the deal. But the real icing on the cake is when someone reads my stories and enjoys them. I’ve had people tell me how much they love my characters and how realistic they are. Some have even told me “this would make a great movie,” which is a fantastic compliment.

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

ML: My Amazon Author’s Page is https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B009P7HVZQ.

My blog page is https://motownmysteries.blogspot.com/.

Readers can connect with me on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/MarkLoveAuthor.