Welcome to the four hundred and sixty-fifth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with mystery / suspense and humour novelist Michael Murphy. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Michael.
Michael: Thanks for having me, Morgen.
Morgen: You’re very welcome. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Michael: I remember the exact moment when I became a writer. In 1999 my employer sent me to an all-day seminar on establishing long-term goals. At the conclusion I had to pick a goal that would take a year or more to complete. I narrowed the choice down to remodelling the house (a lot of work and expense) and writing a novel. I’d been a journalism major and had extensive non-fiction writing experience, but writing a novel seemed like a daunting task. Nine months later, I finished The Class of ’68. In 2000 it won first place in the Arizona Authors Association unpublished novel competition and was published in 2007. In January 2013 Koehler Books will publish my eighth novel, Goodbye Emily. Great seminar!
Morgen: Wow. Mine was spotting a creative writing workshop at the local university and being hooked from the very first story I wrote. What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Michael: After The Class of ’68, I focused on writing the types of novels I enjoyed reading, mystery / suspense with a touch of humor, the kind that Nelson DeMille writes.
Morgen: Pardon the pun but how funny; when this interview airs I’ll be on my way to a crime & humour writing weekend conference. ‘Goodbye Emily’ is your eighth novel, what have you had published to-date?
Michael: My second novel is called Try and Catch the Wind, the first in a three book series about Casey Bannister, a retired NYPD homicide detective trying to adjust to retirement in a small town in upstate New York. Secrets of Sheridan Manor and Cuts like a Knife are the other two in the series. One of the secondary characters became so important in the series, I thought he deserved his own novel. Ramblin’ Man is more of a romantic comedy. I wrote my first novel set in Arizona titled Cold File. The second novel in Arizona is my most recent, Scorpion Bay with two of the funniest characters I’ve ever created in it.
Morgen: From what you’ve just said I think this might be a hard question to answer… do you have a favourite of your books or characters?
Michael: The characters I’m most fond of appear in my upcoming novel, Goodbye Emily. The novel follows three men who just turned sixty, baby boomers each with their own problems, but the plot shows them tackling life with humor and optimism as they recreate their 1969 roadtrip to Woodstock.
Morgen: I’ve had quite a few authors say their favourites are their latest book’s characters. Did you have any say in the titles / covers of your books? How important do you think they are?
Michael: I haven’t had a publisher change my titles. It’s important to participate in the cover design process, but it’s also good to have an objective person create it. When I finish a novel, I’m usually too close to the characters to be objective. I think the best collaborative cover effort, again is Goodbye Emily. Has kind of a catching tie-dye cover that captures the sixties and Woodstock.
Morgen: I like it. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Michael: After Goodbye Emily, I’m returning to my mystery roots. It’s the first in a series set in the 1930s era of gangsters and speakeasies called The Yankee Club. It’s not noir fiction because, like my other books, it’s filled with fun characters, humor and romance. The series is influenced most by the Thin Man movie series with William Powell and Myrna Loy, based on The Thin Man novel by Dashiell Hammett.
Morgen: I have loads of films but not that one… I’ll have to take a look. Do you manage to write every day?
Michael: I don’t write every day, but when I’m in the middle of writing a novel, I focus on it every day, encouraging the self-conscious to create characters and scenes. If I do this right, whether exercising, meditating, or sleeping, I emerge with something great to write. The rest becomes mechanical.
Morgen: Hopefully a good mechanical. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Michael: I’m evolving to more of a structured storyline before I begin, but I allow myself flexibility to let primary characters grow and secondary characters emerge and change the story if necessary.
Morgen: Which they so often do. Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Michael: This could fill a whole blog, or more.
Morgen: Ooh, great! Maybe you could write a guest blog piece for me?
Michael: When an author creates a character for the reader, they should make them memorable in their dialogue, mannerisms and physical traits. If the physical trait is irrelevant to characterization, it should be left out. Characters should have mannerisms, that again, reflect on their character. In Secrets of Sheridan Manor, one of the characters shudders, especially when he’s around his father, to whom he has difficulty communicating. Two important pieces of advice regarding character names; avoid having character names start with the same initial, Nick and Nora for example; my apologies Dashiell. The other is avoid a first name where other characters might change. For example if I picked a character named Robert, his mother might call him Robert, but his friends might call him Bob. Other might call him, Bobby. Pick a name so that can’t happen. The lead in Scorpion Bay is Parker Knight. His wife, friends and enemies can only call him Parker.
Morgen: At least Nick and Nora sound different and are different sexes. I’ve read stories before with names like Dan and Don, or Nick and Dick but no, I agree. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Michael: Rewriting is the most important phase of creating a vivid novel. I start out with a blank canvas. First draft is like a sketch. Second and third drafts, I fill in details and colors. By the time I’m finished, I’ve often had a dozen or more drafts.
Morgen: Ouch. I thought five (on a 105K novel) was plenty. Do you have to do much research?
Michael: Research was critical in my return to Woodstock novel, Goodbye Emily, since a third of the novel is told in flashback to the festival. Who was on stage when, what did they sing, when did it rain? How did food get in? Thank you, Internet.
Morgen: <laughs> I’m a huge fan too. Sadly the libraries are missing out on writers who would have spent hours researching a small gem that Wikipedia and the likes can probably tell us in 0.19 seconds. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person?
Michael: I’m glad you asked this.
Michael: My first seven published novels were written in the third person. Goodbye Emily and The Yankee Club are written in first person. Although it limits what can be revealed to the reader, it enhances the point of view and in these books, worked much better.
Morgen: It does tend to be more intimate (which is why I love second person pov). Do you write any poetry, non-fiction or short stories?
Michael: I wouldn’t even know how to begin writing a short story. I admire how people can put so much into so few pages.
Michael: I think it’s possible that I had more agent rejections than any other published author. When I look back, I now realize my novels hadn’t aged properly. I was submitting grape juice when I should have been submitting wine.
Morgen: Dean Koonz apparently had over 500 and just look at him now… one of Stephen King’s favourite authors. Do you enter competitions? Are there any you could recommend?
Michael: I entered and won the Arizona Authors Association novel writing competition. I was stunned and quite humbled because there were hundreds of submissions from around the country. My advice is to enter writing in competitions if you’re guaranteed professional feedback. Learn from the experience.
Morgen: And they’re not too expensive. I have a competitions calendar (although I don’t go into cost specifics as they vary from year to year). Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Michael: After years of futility, I finally secured an agent, Dawn Dowdle from Virginia. She’s great and it’s not coincidental that my literary career took off after I signed with her.
Morgen: I have an agent questionnaire if she’d be interested in being grilled <coughs>… joining me for a ‘fireside chat’. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Michael: A lot. Sometimes I think I spend too much time in the social media establishing my brand and connecting to readers. Sometimes I think I don’t do enough. I do know it takes away from what I really enjoy, writing and creating, but it’s necessary and vital if one wants readers to purchase their work. And I’ve met some wonderful people as a result of marketing and promoting my books.
Morgen: It’s a fine balance to find… which is why I started my 5pm fiction slot, so I’d have to write every day (today’s will be the 79th and it’s really not a chore – I love what comes out, usually anyway, and can see some of them becoming longer pieces… perhaps for (my fifth) NaNoWriMo this November). Where can we find out about you and your writing?
Morgen: Thank you, Michael. Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Michael: I received two blurbs about Goodbye Emily from two Woodstock icons, Country Joe McDonald and Wavy Gravy. Country Joe said, “Michael I just finished reading your novel and found it a fantastic read and wonderful story. It would make a terrific movie. Thanks for letting me see it. Cheers, Joe.”
Wavy Gravy said, “What we have in mind is a sweet look back at the good old days. We must have been in heaven, man.”
Morgen: Wow, that’s fantastic (I wonder if any movie executives are reading this?). All the best for the follow-up.
I then invited Michael to provide a synopsis for his book ‘Goodbye Emily’…
Two years after the death of his wife Emily from cancer, a college professor faces his own life-threatening illness, broken heart syndrome. With one last chance to grab life by the balls, the professor plans a roadtrip to scatter his wife Emily’s ashes where they met at Woodstock. To recreate the original trip they’ll need the third tripper from back in the day, now in a nursing home with early stage Alzheimer’s. When the home refuses to allow their friend to come along, the professor and the vet bust him out, attracting the attention of the cops and the media, fascinating the public.
The roadtrip turns into a flight from “the man” and not even the professor’s defense attorney daughter can help. In a psychedelic van, the trio dodges cops in two states and a politically opportunistic worm of a prosecutor. Against all odds, they close in on their destination. Waiting are thousands of supporters determined to recreate the magic of Woodstock and enough cops to end the roadtrip and break the professor’s heart for good.
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