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/.

Indie Monday

Today’s guest: Andrew Allen Smith

Andrew Smith - Author 2

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 honored to host Andrew Allen Smith, novelist, short story writer, and poet. Originally from Anderson, Indiana, Andrew currently lives in Michigan. After several successful ventures in IT, research, and business, Andrew has become a prolific and creative author. He is the author of four novels in the Masterson Files series, combining action, adventure, and mystery: Vengeful Son (Book 1, 2016), Sinful Father (Book 2, 2018), Deadly Daughter (Book 3, 2018), and Fateful Friend (Book 4, 2019). A fifth entry in the series is in the works, as well as a number of other books, as Andrew describes below. 

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

DL: Could you tell us a little about yourself?

AAS: My name is Andrew Allen Smith. My quest is to learn, write, and have fun doing everything I do. My favorite color is blue, no red, no blue. Ooops, ahhhhh.

In all seriousness I have always been a storyteller, but as a writer I face something that many writers seem to face, focus. I have a significant number of partially completed books, short stories, novellas, poems, prose pieces, and inspirational items and have to focus to keep from pushing each pebble forward a little and not completing items. I went to college for Computer Science, and do very well with machines. My early goal was to develop AI and work in robotics, but I ended up working in hard core IT, and research. I have written a lot, and I only recently began collating and completing my writings. After huge successes and several business ventures I moved to Michigan in 2015 and was assisted by two friends in finishing my first book, Vengeful Son.

Since then I work, write, and hang out with my wife, two dogs, and cat. My children are all grown up, so it is a relatively peaceful life.

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

AAS: My most recent book is the fourth in the Masterson Files series. Fateful Friend is about a series of unpredictable events that accidently get our antihero, Jonathon Michael Masterson, involved in an attempted assassination. The book and my characters continue to grow and though this book was painful, it was another improvement in the series. I have enjoyed having the characters grow and have a lot invested in this work. It was more difficult because the story grew sideways for a while. It does involve some ancillary characters, but I had created a side story about race that I reduced simply because it was far too complex and did not add to the story.

I am currently working on several items. Book 5 of the Masterson files is complete and edited. I need a cover and have found a few people who are willing to work on it with me. Silent Sister is a pure roller coaster ride. My villain was a huge success with my editor and a beta reader, and my hero for this book was truly a semi-side character until now. Michael is still a major part, but my hero takes on more than he should, and there are several substories about family, trust, and how people sometimes need help and need to ask for that help.

I am also working on Burial Ground, a Young Adult story about a young lady who moves to the country next to an Indian reservation, makes some awesome friends, and is slowly possessed by a deceased Indian chief. It is a labor of love and will be out before the Muskegon Art fair in July (if that ends up happening).

Stealth Ride is about a man who lost his wife to a car accident while he stayed home and took care of his car. The story is existential as it questions the meaning of life, possessions, and relationships. I started this years ago and the story has been stuck in my mind to the last line, I just need to get it completed.

As if that is not all, I am working on Adam, a book about a man who find himself in a unique situation. He is immortal and can save a woman if he just acts, but there are consequences. In this first of the series, Adam tells his story. This book is all written in first person from Adam’s point of view, making it a different approach to my normal style of writing.

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

AAS: I write because I enjoy writing. Each night I dream, and usually it is a new story. As you can guess, I am a bit behind in putting them all down. I love the feeling of words flowing onto paper. The goal of each story is to entertain. It is the best feeling in the world to have someone come up and say, “Where is the next book,” or to tell me how engrossed they got in the story.

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

AAS: Oops, I jumped ahead didn’t I. Usually I am inspired by dreams, but sometimes it can be items or a thought or person. I write each day at an inspirational site and those ideas come from everywhere. From people who say a few words to me to the passions of my life, and other people’s lives. To quote “The Seven Faces of Doctor Lao,” “Every time you pick up a grain of sand you hold a universe in the palm of your hand.”For me, every moment is like a grain of sand, and every moment has a story to tell about the universe.

I had a vivid dream once about death, the most vivid I have ever had, and the concepts and ideas were amazing, and my inspiration worked them out even further. Death as a person, an entity. Yes, it has been done in movies and books, but my dream was different, and the resulting “A Conversation with Death” was fairly unique.

I love getting the ideas out, and then shaping them into a cohesive story. My books grow themselves. I am not out to baffle readers with new words they never wanted to know, I am out to tell a story and, in the process, show my readers something fun, exciting, scary, amazing, horrible, passionate, and even uplifting.

I dislike editing and have had bad experiences with editors. A wonderful young lady, Jenny Bynum, reviewed my first book after it was published and loved the book but pointed out the errors. I spent a considerable amount of the books’ earnings on editors. Each has had their own challenges, and I blame myself each time. I can do perfect at work writing a quality document, but do not do as well editing my own books. I also dislike some of the dealings I have had with reviews. I have had dozens of good reviews, but the company that has my books online (Amazon) often removes those for no apparent reason, so it goes up and down a lot.

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

AAS: In my opinion, touching someone with words is making a difference. In the early 90s, I owned a social network and spoke on television about interacting mind-to-mind. Great writers and good writers are not just throwing words on a page, they are sharing their mind through words and painting a picture that can only be seen in the back of someone’s mind. To me that is amazing. Having someone come up to me and say, “I love Alan, who did you base him on?” and me saying he was created from the back of my mind, gives me a sense of satisfaction.

If you consider it, we are all like Doctor Frankenstein and our characters truly come alive. In my second book, Sinful Father, one of the main characters dies. I cried like a baby writing about a character giving a eulogy about a character I created killed by another character I created that broke the heart of yet another. None of the people existed, but in my mind they did, and the feedback I have gotten from people is similar. No, I will not get rich from writing, well, unless someone says “Oh wow! Read this now,” and I go viral, but I will feel with people as my stories progress.

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

AAS: You can see my inspirational blog daily at www.29000sunsets.com, short stories at www.shortstorysite.com, and books at  https://www.amazon.com/Andrew-Allen-Smith/e/B01KTVUFQS%3Fref=dbs_a_mng_rwt_scns_share (New site coming soon!)

 

Indie Monday

Today’s guest: Brenda Hasse

Hasse author photoWith 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 delighted to host Brenda Hasse, a prolific, multi-award-winning author and freelance writer. Brenda has written and published young adult historical romance, pre-teen historical mystery, and adult metaphysical/visionary novels. She is also the author of several picture books for children. Brenda volunteers her time researching the history of Fenton, Michigan, and writing scripts for the Fenton Village Players to perform during the Ghost Walk and Historical Cemetery Walk. She is a guest teacher at Fenton High School, and resides in Fenton with her husband and cats.

Brenda’s novels include The Moment of Trust (2020), From Beyond the Grave: An Afterlife Journey, Part 2 (2019), A Lady’s Destiny (2018), On the Third Day: An Afterlife Journey (2017), The Freelancer (2014), and Wilkinshire (2010). Her books for children are A Unicorn for my Birthday (2009), My Horsy and Me, What Can We Be? (2006), and Yes, I Am Loved (2005).

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

DL: Could you tell us a little about yourself?

BH: It was difficult for me to learn to read as a child and I hated it. I was one of five students who had to be pulled from my class several times a week to work with a paraprofessional to improve my reading skills. Throughout my education, I relied on notes to pass a class. Upon graduation from college, I worked for General Motors as a computer programmer analyst. I didn’t appreciate the written word until my mid-30s (so, like yesterday, lol) I enjoy reading now, though. I think it is quite ironic that I write for others to read.

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

BH: My latest book is titled, The Moment Of Trust. It is a young adult historical romance, which was published on April 21, 2020. I am also working on the third book of a trilogy titled, Until We Meet Again: An Afterlife Journey, Part 3, which I have set a goal of publication by the end of June. The trilogy’s genre is metaphysical/visionary with the first book, On The Third Day, soon to be made into an audiobook.

I am also writing a book based on the true experience of human trafficking titled, A Victim Of Desperation, and hope to publish it by the end of September/October.

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

BH: I mostly write young adult historical romance. I have always enjoyed history, especially the medieval time period. Even though it was a dirty and oftentimes brutal era, there is a distinct romance about that time that I like to bring to life.

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

BH: My writing process begins with knowing how the story will end, creating relatable characters for the reader, and a loose outline. Next, I write an extended outline, rewrite adding on the average 10,000 words with each pass-through of the manuscript before passing it onto my beta readers. Once I receive feedback from my betas, I take their comments into consideration, make changes, edit several times, and format the manuscript for printing before passing it onto a professional editor. Once I update the edits, I give the manuscript to another editor to ensure most, if not all of the typos and mistakes are found. Unfortunately, some may still slip through.

While waiting for feedback from beta readers and editors, I am busy writing the synopsis for the back of the cover and designing the front cover. My graphic illustrator helps to layout my design for the print and ebook covers. All of my files must be converted to pdf, jpg, and ebook for submission.

My favorite part of the process is designing the cover and promotional video. The least favorite part is rewriting and editing, which at times is tedious.

My ideas come from my imagination, life experiences, or at times they find me. The book I am writing about human trafficking formulated through the random meeting with the victim. Since she had not told anyone else about her experience, I like to believe I was chosen to tell her story. I also participate in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) for encouragement and goal setting.

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

BH: It is good to create something, whether through sculpture, composing music, or other forms of art. I like to think when I write, I am painting with words. As someone reads my words, pictures form within their mind. Even though the pictures are intangible, they seem real at the moment they are read. Since writing is usually a solitary craft, it is refreshing to participate in signings and share what I have learned about writing with others in writing groups and lecturing.

Even though I have received several awards for my writing, it is nice to overhear someone who has read one of my books boast about its quality to someone else. I volunteer to write scripts for my city’s community actors to perform during the annual ghost walk and cemetery walk.

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

http://www.BrendaHasseBooks.com

I don’t blog often, but there are a few that I have published via my website.

Thanks for spotlighting me on your blog!

Indie Monday

Today’s guest: D. A. Reed

DA Reed Headshot

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 proud to host D.A. Reed (Deborah Reed), who writes young adult (YA) novels, as well as novels in the mystery/thriller genre. Deborah’s young adult novels are based on challenges children and adults face every day. Her characters touch the hearts of readers even after the last page has been turned, and Deborah’s hope is that the message her novels contain will help and encourage those who read them.

Deborah’s young adult novels have garnered the attention of children’s author Johnathan Rand, who invited her to be a writing instructor at his Author Quest writing camp for young writers in 2016-2020. She is in demand as a presenter at writers’ retreats, workshops, and conferences, and taught creative writing workshops to children in the United Arab Emirates at the Sharjah International Book Fair in 2019. In addition to her novels, Deborah has had short horror stories published in Share Your Scare: A Lulu Anthology, and The Garfield Lake Review.

 

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

DL: Welcome, Deborah. Could you tell us a little about yourself?

DAR: I am an author of five young adult fiction novels (Daisies in the Rain, Dancing with Shadows, The Rejects of Room 5, Dare Accepted, and Nothin’ but Gutters and Pocket Change) and three mystery/thriller adult novels (Web of Deceit is a stand-alone mystery/thriller; When Darkness Killed Her and When Vengeance Reigned are books 1 and 2 of the Caitlin O’Reilly trilogy). I have also published two volumes of short horror stories under the pseudonym H.G. Evans. I am a wife and a mother of a superhero and a princess. Not only do I love writing, but I love reading, and devour books of all genres. I also enjoy running, and plan many scenes from my novels while my feet pound out miles on the pavement!

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

DAR: My latest novel was released April 15th and is titled Nothin’ but Gutters and Pocket Change. It is a young adult novel that portrays the struggles of homeless teens. Here’s the synopsis:

Two separate lives, one goal: survival

 She is afraid for her life…

Summer Jackson and her brother Levi don’t tell anyone about what happens at home, dealing with the fights between their mother and live-in boyfriend Bracken in secret. But when Bracken puts their mom in the hospital, Summer realizes they can’t go back home, even if it means she and Levi end up sleeping in a gutter.

 He is abandoned by his family…

Midas Ramirez may not be rich, but at least he has a place to call home. That is, until he finds out the bank is taking the house, his parents are moving, and Midas isn’t welcome. Abandoned and with nowhere to go, Midas turns to the one thing he knows will get him cash fast – but it could also ruin his life.

 Both are out of options…

When things take a turn for the worse, Summer and Midas realize they have a choice to make – learn to trust others with their secrets…or risk losing everything.

I am currently working on the third and final novel in the Caitlin O’Reilly mystery/thriller trilogy, When Death Whispered Her Name. It will be released in fall of 2020.

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

DAR: I write because I love stories and how they draw me into another world. More often than not, I become so engrossed in the book I am reading and the emotions in brings out in me that someone (my husband…my kids…) can call my name and I won’t hear them. There are several books I have read where the author elicited emotions as if the events were happening to me personally. Words are incredibly powerful, and those books made me want to create that same emotional response in others as well.

While my mystery novels are more purely for entertainment, my young adult novels all deal with real-life issues that kids (and also many adults) struggle with today. I try to incorporate a message in each of my YA novels that will help readers navigate these situations and this crazy thing called life!

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

DAR: I try to write every day, even if it is only for ten minutes. It keeps the writing muscles moving, keeps the story fresh in my mind so when I sit down the next day, I know exactly where to go next.

I am not one to outline my books before beginning them. I tried outlining before and stared at a wall for over two hours before giving up and just going for it. Typically, I know how the novel will start, a few things that happen in the middle, and how it ends. Once I begin, the characters tend to take over and tell me where to go! (They can be rather bossy…) I love when the characters begin to take on a life of their own; they no longer are statistics on a page, they are real with a specific personality, way of talking, etc.

I think my least favorite part of writing is editing. Creating a written work is intensely personal and it can seem like a direct attack against your person when readers and editors critique that work. However, I truly believe that learning and evolving are continual processes–and the only way to improve and grow is to be willing to take a good, honest look at what others have to say. (Even if it hurts!)

My ideas come from everything around me. Conversations I have, things I see, smell…anything can set off a story in my head. One time I was running in downtown Rockford during winter and saw a woman bundled up in a winter coat, hat, scarf, and gloves. She was sitting on a bench and reading a book while holding a coffee cup in her other hand. I thought she was insane! It was only about thirty degrees outside, and the wind made it feel even colder. But she was outside, reading and drinking coffee. That woman stuck with me – and became the main character of a short story I began writing the next day!

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

DAR: Writing has opened up many opportunities for me, for which I am incredibly grateful!

I think the biggest wonder for me is knowing how my writing has touched the lives of others. When I first began writing young adult novels, I was overwhelmed by the response from readers. Many thanked me for writing the stories and for the messages within. A mother contacted me to tell me about how one of my novels not only helped her daughter, but also herself personally. I often hear of my books being passed around to various family members as one person reads it and wants to share it with others. What floored me was also having a high school student approach me and say her friends keep wanting to read my books, but every time they go to the library, they’re already checked out. To know that the messages in my books are helping others is the greatest gift writing has given me.

Through writing I have also been blessed to meet a wonderful community of people who are loving and supportive as we all pour our hearts out through the written word. I have also been able to share my passion for writing with children and adults through writing workshops and presentations, some international.

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

DAR: All of my books are available on www.amazon.com and www.lulu.com.

Readers can follow me on:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AuthorDeborah/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/dareedauthor/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/dareedauthor

Goodreads: www.goodreads.com (D.A. Reed, Author)

Feel free to sign up for my monthly newsletter at: http://eepurl.com/gtszKT

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.

podcast

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/.

 

Imagining the End of the World: An Excerpt from POSTCARDS FROM THE FUTURE

About six months ago, my friend Andrew Lark invited me to take part in a project he was then developing. He was in the middle of writing the novella that would become “Pollen,” a work of dystopian fiction imagining the end of humanity, and his idea was to include two other novellas to round out a volume with that theme.

He also invited our mutual friend, author Wendy Thomson. Wendy and I both jumped at the chance. We had read and respected Andrew’s previous novel, Better Boxed and Forgotten, and we all respected each other’s work. This included Wendy’s two books, a memoir, Summon the Tiger, and a novel, The Third Order, as well as my own Martin Preuss mystery series.

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The result of our collaboration was Postcards from the Future: A Triptych on Humanity’s End, published this month (please see the end of the post for details of our book launch on November 2nd.) Besides Andrew’s “Pollen,” Wendy contributed a novella, “Silo Six,” and I added “The Bright and Darkened Lands of the Earth.”

People who know my work wondered if this project represented a departure from my mystery series. But I didn’t see it as a departure at all. True, dystopian fiction is a different genre than mysteries. But in a way, my contribution to Postcards is a mirror image of a mystery novel.

Mysteries, after all, generally start in a state of disorder (a crime has been committed or the social order has been upset somehow) and proceed to a state of order (the crime is solved, the social order is restored).

A dystopian or post-apocalyptic work, on the other hand, often starts with society in a state of order and then proceeds to disorder through some apocalyptic event or events. Or, as Newton’s second law of thermodynamics predicts, things move into a state of increasing disorder in the world of the work.

There’s also another way this isn’t a departure for me: I’ve long been a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction. It appeals to my cynical sense that “the crust of civilization on which we tread,” as scholar Timothy Garton Ash has written, “is always wafer thin. One tremor and you’ve fallen through, scratching and gouging for your life like a wild dog.”

My appreciation for post-apocalyptic fiction culminated in a senior seminar I developed at the college where I used to teach. As the capstone experience for English and Language Arts majors, the course, titled Post-Apocalyptic American Fiction, required students to prepare an extensive paper derived from in-depth critical reading and research on the topic, then make a public presentation of that paper.

Students were expected to draw upon the critical and analytical powers they had honed in their literature, criticism, and writing courses throughout their previous semesters.

To prepare the course, I read widely and deeply in post-apocalyptic literature, from the beginning (the biblical book of Revelation) to the most recent (at that time, The Hunger Games), from the classic (A Canticle for Leibowitz) to the popular (The Walking Dead), from goremeisters to the finest “literary” authors.

I read books about zombies, vampires, nuclear war, electromagnetic pulses, and crumbling societies in the past, present, and future. I read what critics had to say about them.

For my final reading list, I settled on four novels that represented what I thought were among the most fascinating, daring, and thoughtful works of contemporary post-apocalyptic literature, while still offering at least a glimmer of hope: Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (I interpreted “American” to include North American because I wanted her in), Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and Colson Whitehead’s Zone One.

I loved this quartet of novels. I had previously taught senior seminars that were among my most rewarding teaching experiences, so I was tremendously excited about the course. I couldn’t wait to teach it.

Unfortunately, it was, to put it bluntly, a disaster in almost every way.

Most of the students in this particular group didn’t understand the books; they didn’t know how to read the research about the books; they didn’t know how to approach a long, segmented critical paper; though seniors, they didn’t know how to incorporate outside sources gracefully; they didn’t have a handle on critical theories or how to use them; they couldn’t grasp the not-so-subtle rules of plagiarism . . .

Please note I’m not mocking or blaming the students here, but rather commenting on their lack of preparation for the rigors of the experience—which of course was our failure as faculty in the department.

I taught the course twice, in the fall and winter semesters. It didn’t get any better from one semester to the other. To make matters worse, I got pneumonia at the beginning of the first semester and was never at my best during the entire four months of the fall.

Needless to say, it was not my finest hour as a professor. As it happened, these two senior seminars turned out to be the last undergraduate courses I would ever teach; the following summer I was appointed dean of the faculty, and except for a few graduate courses I spent the rest of my time until retirement as an administrator.

(Which was a dystopian nightmare of a whole different order of magnitude, but that’s a story for another day.)

So when Andrew invited me into his project, I was coming from a deep involvement in, and appreciation for, dystopian literature. Naturally, I said yes at once.

Because of that background, I’m particularly proud of the book the three of us produced.

Both Andrew and Wendy’s pieces are splendid, not simply as works of dystopian fiction, but as serious and thought-provoking works of literature. As one reviewer said, the novellas in Postcards are “fascinating,” “powerful,” “inviting,” and “tense, bleak, and entirely human narrative[s].”

For myself, I had such a good time on this project that I’ve begun writing a spin-off from my contribution, and have been envisioning an entire cycle of works set in the world I imagined (which I’m starting to call the Dry Earth Series).

I’d like to share a small section of my novella with you here, in hopes you’ll be interested enough to have a look at the entire book.

And if you’re in the metropolitan Detroit area, I invite you to the party celebrating the official launch of this project on Saturday, November 2nd, from 1 till 4 pm, at the historic Arden Park Kresge Mansion, 74 Arden Park Boulevard, Detroit. To register, go to www.alarksperch.com and hit the Comment button. It’s free and open to the public, but we suggest a contribution to charity.

I’m happy to present an excerpt from my novella in Postcards from the Future, the first two chapters of “The Bright and Darkened Lands of the Earth.”

 

1

A figure appears in an empty window frame halfway up the ruined wall. Dark glasses in a face wrapped with rags and shaded beneath a hood stare down at her.

The long barrel of a gun points in her direction.

Caught completely out in the open, she has no time to do anything except dive to the ground. She tries to merge with the rubble, disappear into it, though she knows she can’t; she is completely exposed. She holds her breath, waiting for the kill shot. She had thought there were no bullets left anymore, but she doesn’t want to take any chances.

When the kill shot doesn’t come, she dares to lift her head. The window frame is empty.

She scrambles to her feet and turns to flee.

Before going ten feet, she comes face-to-face with the hooded figure holding his rifle.

“Halt!” the figure rasps. The voice is muffled by the layers of rags wrapped around its head beneath the hood. But there is no mistaking the rough, deep sound.

It is a raggedman’s voice.

She falls to her knees and raises trembling hands.

2

Her day started hours earlier, when the wary young woman—whose name is Ash—picked her way through the debris near the entrance to her underground settlement.

With a staff for balance and protection, she stepped over concrete blocks and ragged piles of broken bricks under the heat of the unrelenting sun. Several times she tripped over planks of charred wood from buildings that had been destroyed in the old wars, concealed under the red dust that coats the land.

Her destination was a few clicks away from their settlement. Wreckage like what surrounded the underground opening was everywhere, all along the meandering path she traveled. They were taught to avoid moving in a straight line to present less of a target, and also to increase the chances of scavenging valuables buried away from the common paths.

The woman stumbled over the detritus of what was left of the city. She wore a tattered drab coat wrapped around her despite the heat, and she protected her head with an ancient battered welder’s helmet that was the unit’s only armor against the brilliantly bright, deadly rays of the sun. This was one among a cache of similar helmets that had been scavenged over the years. Nobody knew what they were at first, but when the tribe discovered the helmets’ uses, they became treasured finds.

She walked carefully, alert to every movement around her. No animals or insects survived anymore, so chances were any movement would be hostile. The only sound was the wind soughing against the metal of her helmet. She swiveled her head constantly. The helmet restricted her view, but its protection against the damaging rays of the sun outweighed any limitations to her vision.

Ash walked over the streets, cracked and overgrown with the skeletal remains of trees and bushes. No one could remember the last time it had rained, not even the elders; plant life had turned brown and desiccated in the absence of water, disappearing like the animals.

Her destination rose ahead of her. It was a larger building than most in the area, originally three stories tall. One entire wall had fallen over in the tremor that rolled through the land the day before.

After a collapse was the worst time to be out scavenging. The dangers from old structures were multiplied after one toppled; the ground grows unsteady around them, so the ones nearby are liable to let go and fall, too. The mortar between blocks is dry, the ruined buildings unstable.

Their original purposes have been lost, but their current usefulness sometimes surprises the survivors who venture from their underground settlement to scavenge. While most such buildings, like the one Ash sought, had long been emptied of any water or food, they sometimes yielded tools or pieces of clothing or other prizes that made exploring them worth the danger. Especially after a collapse, which often uncovered treasures previously hidden to the Vengers who searched.

Ash is a Venger. When Vengers found objects that might be of use, they would bring them back to the settlement. If they found potential food sources, they were to return and inform their work unit’s leader, who would let the Vesters know. They, in turn, would go out and harvest the food. The practice had developed to ensure their survival, and so far it was working, if barely; Ash’s settlement was on the verge of starvation.

Slowly the food sources have been dwindling. As they did, so too did the tribe. The Vengers had to travel further and further from their underground settlement to find food, and sometimes they returned empty-handed and sometimes they did not return at all.

Ash paused when she was about a half-click away from the structure she sought. She scanned the sight through the dark glass of her helmet. Then, stepping carefully while still some distance away, she circled the ruin once, twice, three times, all the while keeping watch for anything moving in the wreckage. It wouldn’t take much to overwhelm her; one raggedman alone could do it if he caught her by surprise.

On her third circuit around the building, a sound reached her, penetrating her helmet. It was high and keening. Though she had not heard a baby cry in years, this brought back the sound of an infant’s mewl. Of course that would be impossible; few children have been born in the recent past. And no child would have survived for long in the outside.

She stopped, knelt low, and listened. The crying ceased, but then she heard what she thought was pounding. She raised the faceplate of her helmet, aware as she did that she was allowing the deadly radiation inside the metal. But she needed to find out what the sound was.

She lifted her head, with the helmet guard ajar so she could see into the shadows that surrounded the building. She listened but heard no more wailing.

Then she heard a scratching and scrambling in the rubble. She stood perfectly still, aware that she was unprotected outside the ruins of the building.

And that this might be a trap.

Then she looked up and saw the figure with the long gun in the empty window frame.

###

Postcards from the Future: A Triptych on Humanity’s End, by Andrew Charles Lark, Donald Levin, and Wendy Sura Thomson, is available in paperback and Kindle from Amazon.com and on order from your local bookstore.

 

 

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.