Not only is Michael Craft one of the coolest writers I know, he’s one of the coolest people I know. I happened upon one of his books at a library several years ago, and although I can’t recall what prompted me to pick it up, I’m glad did. I’ve been a big fan of his work for a lot of years now, so getting to know him has been pretty exciting for me. Mike has become a very good friend to me. He has offered me great writing advice, and even listened (very patiently) to me when I have thrust myriad personal frustrations upon him~ so it only seemed natural that I should interview him here on my blog!
Michael is the author of more than a dozen novels, the Mark Manning mystery series, and most recently, The MacGuffin (which I’m honored to have a signed copy of!) You can learn more about him at: www.michaelcraft.com or: http://www.facebook.com/michael.craft.140. You can contact Michael at: email@example.com. To get a copy of his latest book, The MacGuffin, go to: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0615499716/ref=nosim/michaelcraft
Q: You have written over a dozen books. Does writing get easier or harder as the time goes on?
A: For me, the actual writing does seem to get easier, and I hope it’s also getting better. It would be nice to think that experience brings not only efficiency, but also improvement.
What has not gotten easier with the passage of time is the purely creative aspect of inspiration. I have always found the most difficult and unpredictable aspect of any given book project to be the initial idea. In other words: What’s it about? Once I’ve found an idea that sufficiently jazzes me, I can rely somewhat on technique, craft, and discipline to pull me through the process of committing 100,000 words to paper.
Q: How long did it take you to get the attention of a literary agent or a publisher?
A: My first novel, Rehearsing, was a slim little literary paperback that took 12 years to find a publisher. Over those years, the manuscript was rejected 27 times (I filed them but didn’t have courage to count them till the book finally sold). Some of the rejections were postcards or form letters, but others offered both praise and advice, which I looked upon as golden nuggets of instruction from the professional publishing world. So I was continuously reworking that first book, not merely repackaging it. And it was eventually published by a small press in San Diego in February 1993 — hard to believe that’s nearly 20 years ago.
Rehearsing never achieved much in terms of sales, but it did get me over the hump of being unpublished, which made my efforts with a second book, Flight Dreams, somewhat easier. This time around, I was determined to go the New York route, so I focused my efforts on finding an agent. It took four years, but I finally got lucky when the manuscript landed on the desk of a new agent at Curtis Brown Ltd., a highly respected and long-established agency. Mitchell Waters took me on as his first client, and Flight Dreams was published by Kensington Books in June 1997. I’m proud to note that it was Kensington’s first gay-themed title, and a great many others have followed.
Q: Growing up, what were your favorite games to play?
A: If you’re expecting me to answer “Clue,” sorry. I was always more partial to Monopoly. And no, I did not, as a result, blossom into a Young Republican.
In college, people kept telling me that I would make a good bridge player, and I tried to learn the game at a couple of junctures, but I never got the hang of it. Looking back, I guess card games have always eluded me.
Over the past year or so, I’ve developed a minor addiction to the Sudoku puzzles that appear in the daily paper. It’s become part of my waking-up ritual, along with coffee. The puzzles get more difficult as the week progresses, so Mondays and Tuesdays begin on a happy note, while Fridays and Saturdays do not.
Q: Is your character Mark Manning based off anyone in particular? Where did he come from?
A: At the time I began brainstorming the first of the Mark Manning stories, I was working at the Chicago Tribune as a graphic designer and living with one of the paper’s reporters. So it’s easy enough to see where I got the idea of creating a protagonist who was an investigative reporter for a big-city daily. But the particulars of the character were entirely my own invention.
At the time, I was going through an Ayn Rand phase, and I much admired the “heroic” qualities with which she imbued her protagonists. So you’ll detect quite a bit of that in the earlier Mark Mannings — to the extent that many readers found the character overly smug. But he does evolve over the course of the series, becoming much less sure of himself.
I really enjoy the process of naming my characters. In the case of Mark Manning, I felt the name had three things going for it: The double-M initials are appealing. Mark is a strong, short name with no nickname. And “Manning” seems to make a verb out of “man.”
Q: What can you tell us about The MacGuffin?
A: Snappy response: It’s fabulous! Buy the book!
But here’s a more considered response. After publishing, on average, a book a year for nearly a decade, I simply needed a break. What’s more, my two concurrently running series (Mark Manning and Claire Gray) had reached their natural conclusions, and on a personal level, I was going through a lot of upheaval that involved a cross-country move and a mindset of “starting over.” So the next book needed to represent a departure for me, and it took me six years to pull it together.
Yes, it’s a mystery, like most of the prior books, but The MacGuffin involves more than 30 entirely new characters, including the protagonist, architect Cooper Brant. And I wanted to experiment with telling the story with a more distinctive and focused narrative voice. What resulted is a very-limited omniscient third-person narration that I had not used before. Cooper Brant is the sole character whose thoughts are shared with the reader, so the narration has a first-person feel to it, but it’s not; it’s third-person all the way.
Most readers will have no awareness of the narrative technique, but it’s crucial not only to the story’s “sound” and feel, but also as a delineator of what kind of story could be told. I apologize for belaboring such a technical point here, but it does in fact color every page of The MacGuffin.
As to what the story is “about,” the jacket blurb sums it up nicely:
A cold-case murder 15 years ago halted promising developments in the quest for clean energy when the rumored prototype of a groundbreaking water engine was stolen or destroyed. Now the race is on to repower America, and Cooper Brant, still grieving that long-ago murder of his father, suddenly finds his family visited by a second violent death, raising the stakes to unearth lost secrets. When Coop discovers how the two crimes are linked, a grim message becomes clear. He’s next.
Q: Will there be a sequel?
A: I conceived The MacGuffin as a stand-alone novel, not intended as the basis for a series, but I developed a real affection for some of its principal characters, and now a sequel seems likely. The inspiration — the kernel of an idea for what the story will be about — has been fermenting for some time now and seems both solid and compelling, but I have not yet worked out all the details.
In the past, I have been a strong advocate for outlining fiction, particularly mysteries, as their plotting is so dependent on intertwined details. But many fiction writers bristle at the very notion of outlining, and I have been wondering if perhaps I should try (to borrow a term from music theory) “through-composing” this next one — in other words, flying blind. This would be a significant departure for me.
Then, Jared, not long ago, I read your blog titled “The Sequel,” in which you describe a process of diving right into your next project before the ink has even dried on the first, and I thought: this is telling me to get my butt in gear and just start writing. I always feel better when I’m actually writing, as opposed to thinking about writing, so let’s just say that I felt inspired by your energy.
I’m happy to report that I have actually begun the first few pages of the sequel to The MacGuffin. It’s working title: FlabberGassed. Yes, as the title suggests, there’s a good measure of humor in this one.
Q: Which comes first, the characters or the storyline?
A: Well, that’s a debate that has torn writers for at least a century now. Writers of literary fiction tend to believe strongly that their stories need to be character-driven (which can result in “action” consisting of little more than protracted discussions over the kitchen table). And writers of genre fiction tend to lean toward plot-driven stories (which can result in one-dimensional characters with no more depth than an old-time melodrama).
Obviously, both character and plot are essential to any well-rounded and compelling modern novel. The writer who gives short shrift to either is at risk of producing a thin story that lacks credible actors, or dramatic authority, or both.
Q: Will there be any more Mark Manning Mysteries?
A: No. Each of the seven Mark Manning installments has a self-contained “action plot” (the whodunit) that does not require knowledge of other stories in the series, but there is also what I like to call an overarching “emotional plot” that focuses on Manning’s evolving character. If you read the seven installments in sequence, you see Manning deal first with coming out as a gay man, then committing to a partner, then dealing with temptations that could risk losing the partner, then taking on the responsibilities of parenting an adolescent, and finally adjusting with his partner to the empty nest.
An even more important evolution for Manning regards his deeply rooted mindset and self-identity. At the start of the series, he’s a know-it-all; by the end of the series, he has learned to know what he doesn’t know, and he is far less judgmental, simply exploring the mysteries of life. The seventh installment, Bitch Slap, leaves him exactly where I want him to remain.
Q: Has your identity as a gay writer helped you, hurt you, or not mattered?
A: Early on, when I was first trying to get published, I felt that my gay identity might have been a detriment. Then, when I finally did secure a contract for the Mark Manning series, there was no question that my gayness had worked to my benefit because the series was intended to serve a niche market, the gay market, where I’ve built an audience. But I had plenty of crossover readers, particularly straight women, which encouraged me to try writing stories for a more general readership, and that’s how my Claire Gray series was born.
Now, 20 years after entering the ranks of published novelists, the market — and society as a whole — has evolved to the point that a writer’s sexual identity is merely a footnote, if that. Since my personal view of gay rights has always been very much that of an assimilationist, I find this literary evolution largely positive. So when I began brainstorming the story that would become The MacGuffin, I really didn’t agonize too much over its intended market or the sexual identity of its protagonist. As the story evolved in my head, it became clear that the protagonist needed to be straight. So he serves the needs of the story, not the needs of a social or political cause.
Still, I am what I am, and even my novels that are not explicitly gay-themed (about half of them to date) still contain a significant “gay presence.” As they always preach to fledgling writers: write what you know.
Q: Does location and/or environment have much to do with your ability write?
A: Location and environment have played a big role in all of my novels, and many readers have commented that the location often seems to be an actual character in the story, particularly those that are set in the desert Southwest, where I now live. I take this as a high compliment.
But your question seems to refer more directly to the influence of my physical writing space. Yes, I suppose my workspace does play a role in motivating me to write. I mean, we all like to be comfortable, and I have designed my home office with care. It’s a comforting place to spend all those hours at the keyboard. And I don’t travel as frequently as I used to, so I rarely need to work on a novel while on the go.
Q: Have you ever had to write under extremely difficult circumstances, and if so, how did you get through it?
A: I find that writing — particularly fiction writing — takes tremendous focus. I need silence and no distractions; I never, for instance, play background music while I write. So if the physical circumstances are difficult or distracting, I just don’t write, as the results would not be my best work. Along similar lines, I never write when I’m tired, and I find writing itself to be a tiring activity; I rarely attempt to write for longer than four hours a day.
Q: What is the nicest thing a reader can say to an author?
A: “Are you single?”
Q: What are some of the most significant changes you’ve seen in the publishing industry since you first got published, and how do you feel about these changes?
A: As discussed above, I think there’s been a significant blurring of the distinction between gay writing and mainstream writing, and I think that’s great for everyone involved.
Obviously, however, the most significant change in the publishing industry has been the advent of electronic publishing and the resulting explosion of self-publishing, both through e-books and print-on-demand paper books. This has rocked the entire industry, and no one can reliably predict how the dust will finally settle. But the entire landscape has changed.
While the stigma of self-publishing as “vanity publishing” is disappearing, it is nonetheless true that self-published books are not subjected to the same vetting and editing process that is undergone by traditionally published books, so the results are very uneven, to say the least. Garbage in, garbage out. At the same time, we are now seeing tons of self-published titles that are fully up to snuff and indistinguishable from their traditionally published counterparts, and I believe the trend will continue in this direction.
The result is that more authors are finding more readers at a time when traditional publishers have grown increasingly adverse to artistic risk and have entrenched themselves ever deeper in the blockbuster mindset.
How do I feel about these changes? It really doesn’t matter how anyone feels about this — the rules have simply changed, and that’s that.
Q: Do you have any storylines that you haven’t gotten around to writing yet?
A: I’ve long thought of plot ideas as my most precious commodity. After all, when a plot notion really grabs me, I commit to it for roughly a year’s work. Having recently begun the sequel to The MacGuffin, I had emptied my idea hopper — until a few days ago.
An old college friend, whom I hadn’t seen in at least 30 years, popped into mind, and I thought it would be nice to send him an e-mail and reconnect, so I Googled him. I typed in his name, plus “New York attorney,” and he popped right up, along with his address. Just out of curiosity, I continued scrolling down the search results, and on the second page I found a reference to him as “Mother Smith’s husband.” (The name isn’t actually Smith.)
This stopped me in my tracks, so I opened the linked site, which belonged to a small-town Episcopal church in Connecticut. Episcopalians address women priests as “Mother” (as opposed to Father or Sister), and it turns out my college friend’s wife had had a later-life calling to the priesthood. I had met her ages ago, before they had married. She was a fashion designer.
But she’s now a graduate of the Yale Divinity School, a priest leading a small flock of Episcopalians in a quaint little Connecticut village, while her husband (my college friend) is a high-power Manhattan lawyer who comes “home” to the parsonage on weekends, when of course she is working.
This isn’t quite a plot yet, but it sure as heck is a promising situation for development, kind of a topsy-turvy spin on that old Cary Grant movie, The Bishop’s Wife.
Q: What are some of your best marketing strategies for getting the word out about your novels?
A: The number one priority is to have a well-designed, well-written, well-edited, well-illustrated, professional-grade website. This makes any author “real.” It allows you to present yourself to the public in the manner you wish to be presented. It allows you to tell your story the way you want it told. And it allows readers to connect and feel invested with you. Conversely, in this electronic age, if you don’t have a website, you simply don’t exist.
An extension of the website should be some sort of presence in the social media. Your success with that aspect of marketing yourself will of course depend on your interest and proficiency in keeping involved with the particular outlet, such as Facebook. A sense of balance is needed here. Obviously, if you’re posting and tweeting all day, you’re not giving much focus to your core writing goals.
Also, if you have some money to work with (such as a respectable advance), you might consider contracting with a professional book publicist for a limited campaign at the time of your book’s release. This is not cheap, and my own experience with this option has been mixed.
Q: Have you ever collaborated with another author? What are your thoughts on that?
A: No, I’ve never collaborated with another writer on a novel, but I did collaborate once on a play script. It was a positive experience, but you really need to have confidence that the two writers are compatible — if not, the situation could get hellish.
Q: You write murder mysteries. What is the most difficult thing about that?
A: Keeping them fresh. Making sure they don’t get too formulaic or predictable.
Readers of genre fiction have a set of expectations when opening a new book, and this is especially true of the mystery genre. Early on, an editor once told me, in no uncertain terms, “I want a corpse by chapter five or page 100, whichever comes first.”
Q: Do you think the authors of mystery stories have inordinately analytical thought processes?
A: Yes, I think that’s a fair characterization of myself, and I presume it’s true of many other mystery writers. A mystery, of course, is a puzzle, with the reader competing with the protagonist, trying to be first to solve the whodunit. Successful plotting is absolutely dependent on subtly intertwined details, so the maker of the puzzle must remain in control of the story at all times.
Q: What got you interested in murder mysteries?
A: I didn’t choose the mystery genre. It chose me. Honest. I set out to be a “literary” novelist, but when I finally secured an agent, he saw strong elements of mystery in the manuscript at hand and encouraged me to push it solidly into that genre. I willingly complied, and then he went out and landed a three-book contract for me with Kensington. That sealed my fate.
Q: What are your thoughts on Agatha Christie?
A: Some years ago, a respected reviewer referred to me as “the gay Agatha Christie,” and it’s a comparison in which I take considerable pride. Mysteries are divided into several subgenres, and Miss Christie is the great master of the “cozy,” which generally involves an amateur sleuth, little violence, and no sex. My gay-themed mysteries, however, contain a fair amount of sex, so I like to describe them as “erotic cozies.” I’ll bet Miss Christie would have approved.
Q: Do you go to writing conferences?
A: Over the years, I’ve attended a number of Bouchercon conferences, serving on various authors’ panels, but those conferences are more fan-driven than writer-driven. In other words, I was there to help sell my books, not to hone my writing skills.
As mentioned above, I took a hiatus from my publishing routine a few years ago, and one of the reasons for this was to step back, assess what I had done, and hone my skills. So I went back to school for a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing, which was, in a sense, a two-year writing conference. I attended the low-residency program at Antioch University Los Angeles, which I found to be a rigorous curriculum with a strong literature component — we not only wrote a minimum of 20 pages per month, but we also read, reported on, and discussed two novels per month. It was intense, and also a revelation. I’ve often heard it said that you have to learn to read before you can learn to write, and now I believe it.
Q: In your opinion, what has been your greatest achievement as a writer?
A: It may sound like a modest goal, but after all these years — and after having published some million words — I feel that I can now honestly call myself “a writer” and, more specifically, “a novelist.”