Novelist, US Marine, and lifelong student of the American Southwest.
David, please tell us how a Marine became a novelist. I sort of fell into writing by my former profession. Part of my career in the Marines included several tours as a staff officer. The principal duty of a staff officer is to read and write all sorts of documents for the commanding officer. Over the years, several of my seniors told me I was a good writer. I was hooked!
I live in a three-bedroom condo, and one of those rooms is my office. I have it decorated with Native American artifacts of all kinds, which serve not only as items of beauty but items that express the colorful history of the Southwest. I am inspired by the suggestion these artifacts bring of people who were able to live in a harsh land and survive there to this day. I allow no distractions, but they pay no attention to my wishes.
The hardest part of my writing process is sitting in a chair and grinding for five to six hours a day, five days a week. Every now and then, I get a flash of inspiration, but the burst of ideas is soon overshadowed by the research, analysis, and crafting needed to support the idea. In the end, my brain surge delivers new things I did not know before, and that’s where the fun of writing comes in.
My favorite author has to be Michael Connelly, followed by Robert Crais.
I travel to the scene of my crimes. My main character, Peter Romero, lives in New Mexico, and Poisoned by God’s Flesh start there. I’ve lost count of my visits to New Mexico since 1963, and I never cease to marvel at its beauty. My first novel, Mining Sacred Ground, takes place in the wilds of Arizona, a place I’ve visited annually (almost) since 1956. Animal Parts sends Romero to Oklahoma, a location I was stationed at while in the Marines. Twice. My newest novel, Dead Horses, takes place in Southern Colorado, a state I’ve loved since graduating from CU Boulder in 1965. My next novel will take place in Nevada, and that’s about all I know about the story. Many Vegas trips coming up? Of course.
How long did it take to get your first book finished? The Smoked Mirror took ten years, but it was a training vehicle and may never see the light of day.
When does your newest novel become available? Dead Horses – A Peter Romero Mystery, will be released by Amazon on October 9, 2020.
My historical characters are based on Native American legends. The problem with legends is that they are often embellished by succeeding generations of storytellers and listeners. Research will get you either a lack of information on a particular legend or confusing, contradictory stories without attribution to a source. It’s sort of a Wild West in a sense. This is where imagination and artistry come in.
My character names are out of the phone book or from the internet. If I need a character, say the sheriff of a certain county, I look up that person online. Let’s say his name is Johnson. The fictitious character’s name I will use is Jonsson. Nobody gets hurt.
Do you ever use real people for your characters? In my first novel, I tried to base my main character on people I know. It didn’t work for me, so I switched to modeling my characters after imaginary people I have developed. It works a lot better for me.
What can you tell us about your protagonist? My character is somewhere in between introspective and strong-willed. He pushes until push comes to shove, then he attacks. He is a bulldog who is not afraid to bite. How about your antagonists. My antagonists are spiritual in nature and have human characteristics, more often have animal characteristics. To make them human, I give them a sense of humor.
Do you work in any subplot? I usually have two subplots that present complications that challenge the main character and reveal more of his inner strengths.
Pantser or plotter? I am definitely a seat-of-the-pants plotter. The last paragraph leads me to the next. I tried outlining once, but it was only distracting work.
Where do you conduct your research? Most of my research is on the internet. I also have an extensive library on the main interest in my writing life – Native Americana. I have attended classes on Native Americana for the past 25 years and sob up everything I can on the subject, including membership in the Archeological Conservancy. I also write about places I know, which enhances my research online and in reading.
Author names: Michael A. Black, aka Don Pendleton, aka A.W. Hart
I met Mike through the Public Safety Writers Association. He is always willing and ready to help others, whether it be writing or life in general. Mike has become a friend and mentor. Mike is holding a copy of one my favorite Michael A. Black novels: Legends of the West – A Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves Western.
Genre/genres you write in: It’s always been my goal to be published in as many different genres as I could. So far, I’ve been published in mystery, thriller, western, sci-fi, fantasy, superhero, mainstream, new pulp, sports, historical, and horror. I’m still working on a romance story.
My latest ones are westerns under the name A. W. Hart, who’s an Amazon Bestseller. My titles in the series are Gunslinger: Killer’s Choice, Gunslinger: Killer’s Brand, and Gunslinger: Killer’s Ghost. I try to blend historical accuracy with the traditional American western. Actually, I have some legitimacy in this genre. Author Zane Grey was a distant relative of mine.
When did you realize you wanted to write novels? I’ve always had an interest in writing. I wrote my first short story in the sixth grade and read it in front of the class. The teacher scrawled D—Poor work across the front of it in red pen and told me never to do it again. Naturally, I didn’t listen to her. I look back on the experience with fondness. I didn’t know it at the time, but it sort of foreshadowed my entire writing career to come: I got my first assignment, my first deadline, and my first rejection all in the space of about three days.
How long did it take you to realize your dream of publication? I struggled for at least ten years trying to get published. In those days, they’d send you a rejection slip with your returned story. I had enough of them to paper the wall in every room in my house. One day I got another story back in one of my self-addressed-stamped-envelopes and noticed the one editor had scrawled something along the seal: Close, but no cigar. Too long. Try again. I was ecstatic. I’d finally gotten some actual feedback for an editor. I promptly rewrote the story and submitted it to another magazine, and it turned out to be my first published story.
Are you traditionally published, indie published, or a hybrid author? All of my stuff has been traditionally published. However, I started out in small press magazines. The market was a bit different back then. They didn’t pay a lot, sometimes only with contributor’s copies, but it gave me a place to learn. As Elmore Leonard once said about the old pulps: “They gave you a place to be bad.” I’ve been published by small press, big press, and a lot of them in between. To me, it makes little difference. I’m just as proud as of my stories that have appeared in those small press mags as I am the big houses. Although the money is nice, I always try to be professional and give my writing the best effort each time out, regardless of the size of the publisher.
Where do you write? I like to write at the kitchen table on the laptop. Once I’m into my zone, I don’t have to worry about anybody bothering me except one of my cats. I’m very leery about writing outside of my home because of my concern about being vulnerable. Some people say they like to write at a restaurant or coffee shop. For me, this would be virtually impossible due to me constantly watching my surroundings.
Is silence golden, or do you need music to write by? I’ve tried listening to music, and it usually distracts me more then it helps. Normally, I don’t listen to any music and try to remain free of distractions.
How much of your plots and characters are drawn from real life? From your life in particular? Being a military vet who served overseas and having been a police officer for thirty some years after that, I’ve had a ton of experiences to draw upon. I’m hesitant to use very many of them because so many involved victims of crimes. I’d never want a victim or a victim’s family to read something I’d written and think that I was capitalizing on their suffering, so I always mask these experiences heavily. Mostly it’s about what the characters experience, and I use the emotions and feelings that I experienced in my writing. I know what it feels like to experience danger, injury, be stabbed, have a bullet whiz by my head, etc. And I know what it feels like to be scared, and I know what it feels like to be lucky. As Winston Churchill once said, “The most exhilarating feeling in the world is to be shot at without result.”
Describe your process for naming your characters? Names are a double-edged sword for me. I tend to repeat them often. The name Jim turns up in my writing a lot for some unknown reason. I keep a character log listing each name I used when I’m writing a book. It’s one way of keeping them straight.
Real settings or fictional towns? I use both and often use fictional settings within real cities. I try to keep things realistic if it’s set in an actual location. I think a bit of artistic license and discretion is a good idea in regards to setting. It’s never good practice to portray a real place in your book in a negative way.
What’s the quirkiest quirk one of your characters has? I’ve had a lot of characters with quirks, so this is a hard one to answer. Writing the Executioner series (as Don Pendleton), I have to come up with James Bond-type villains who are larger than life. I usually try to put a dose of kink into some of the villains, but it’s also important to give the bad guys one of two good aspects, so they don’t come off as cardboard. An agent once advised me to give one of my villains a severe dental problem or a pet dog to which he was fiercely loyal. So I did the next best thing and gave him a phobia about tooth decay and had him brushing his dog’s teeth religiously. Since no good deed goes unpunished, I had the dog subsequently urinate on the guy’s rug.
If you could have written any book (one that someone else has already written,) which one would it be? Why? This is a tough one. I’d have to pick one of the books that I was forced to read in school, perhaps The Scarlet Letter or Moby Dick … maybe one of Faulkner’s such as Light in August. I’d choose any one of the above, so I could cut all of the excess out of them and make sure they had satisfying endings.
Everyone, at some point, wishes for a do-over. What’s yours? I haven’t thought about it much. There are no do-overs, only regrets. But that’s why life is bittersweet.
What’s your biggest pet peeve? I don’t suffer fools gladly.
You’re stranded on a deserted island. What are your three must-haves? Food, water, and a quick way to get back to civilization.
What was the worst job you’ve ever held? I’ve had quite a few, but I’d have to say pulling KP in the army was one. Well, maybe latrine duty … But these gave me the incentive to apply myself to become a squad leader, so I didn’t have to pull those anymore. When I was 19, I had to drive a truck around the South Side of Chicago delivering tires to gas stations. That was pretty bad.
What’s the best book you’ve ever read? Wow, this is a tough one. There have been so many. I suppose the best one is Deliverance, by James Dickey. He was a nationally recognized poet in the 1960s. He spent ten years writing a first-person thriller about four city dwellers who go on a canoe trip into the mountains of Georgia and have a horrific experience that changes them forever. It has the best first line of any book I’ve ever read:
It unrolled slowly, forced to show its colors, curling, and snapping back whenever one of us turned loose.
Man, that guy could write. When I finished the novel, I went back and reread that first line and realized he had summed up the entire book with that one sentence.
What’s on the horizon for you? That remains to be seen. Hopefully, more books and short stories to be written. I’m currently working on a new series for Wolfpack publishers about modern day bounty hunters. We’re calling it the Trackdown series. The first one is due on in October, and it’s called Trackdown: Devil’s Dance.
Anything else you’d like to tell us about yourself and/or your books? My books are meant to be entertaining. I always try to write the kind of book I’d like to read, and this is essential because, as any writer knows, you have to read your own book several times before you turn it in.
Contact Information, Website, and/or blog links: Right now, my website is out of commission. I have an Amazon Author’s Page as well as author pages on Crossroad Press and Wolfpack Press. Anybody wanting to chat, my email is DocAtlas108@aol.com.
Renowned editor, essayist, screenwriter, teacher, and anthologist.
I met Victoria when she was an instructor in a Master Class at the Kauai Writers Conference. I learned a great deal from her and have maintained a relationship ever since. If you get a chance to hear her speak or teach, do your best to attend. I’m so pleased to have Victoria Zackheim here with us.
Victoria, we would like to hear about how you start a project…whether it’s essay, novel, memoir, or film. We can’t cover all these talents in one visit; you will have to come back for another visit. We’ll let you take the lead—your choice of topic(s) today.
First of all, thank you for the invitation. I’m not so sure about the “renowned” part, but I’ll accept accolades! Now, to your questions…
What inspires you to start a project? I get an idea and cannot shake it. It might be something I’ve read, dreamed, heard in a passing conversation. My novel, The Bone Weaver, started out because I wanted to write a story that dealt with the challenges facing women. In this case, the isolation so many women experience, especially when they focus on their careers. In this case, the protagonist was very successful in her academic environment, but she had no idea how to sustain a relationship. She used her work as her escape. This was fine until a crisis forced her to confront herself.
My film project was more hands-on, in the sense that I overheard someone describing an outrageously funny (and I learned later, serious, and deadly) experience in Northern Ireland, and the story burned through me for several years. It’s now one of my two major projects.
How do you know which genre best fits an idea? Oh, George, you’re asking about my Acorn concept, yes? From an acorn, a nut of an idea comes the project.
I’ve started writing a novel, only to realize early on (hopefully) that it’s a short story…or a personal essay. When I was editing my first anthology, The Other Woman, the essays began arriving. Twenty-one remarkable women were sharing their highly personal stories. From the first essay, I knew this was a play. I saw it. Five women seated on the stage, the script in binders, no memorization, a five-person dialogue about infidelity of all kinds. It’s had dozens of readings, and I never tire of sitting in the audience and watching how actors interpret their roles. And I love that it’s often used as a fundraiser for women’s shelters.
Starting…that is…launching the writing…can be daunting. A lot of people give up at this point. What advice would you like to share about beginning a project? If a project is dumped, it’s often because the grunt work, the preparatory work, wasn’t done. We all read about writers who “just sit down and write” and somehow create a wonderful novel. But I’m guessing there are far more successful projects that result from long hours contemplating the story and character arcs, the plot threads, etc. And then days, sometimes weeks, creating the outline. I have a dear friend, a mystery writer (with 30 million books in print!) who takes at least a week, all day work, to create the first outline, chapter by chapter, scene by scene. Even when she’s satisfied with the outline, she spends more time on it. When she’s certain that it has everything, and in the right order, with characters and plot fully developed, only then does she begin to write.
What happens if a writer begins with a memoir…and then backs away? Family pressure, the guilt of hurting people, or even the fear of a lawsuit. It happens that many of the books I edit (as a freelancer) are memoirs, and I run into this with every project. Dare I reveal this? What will my family/friends/ colleagues think? I recently worked for nearly a year on a memoir with a highly gifted, National Book Award recipient. Her memoir was brilliant, poetic, poignant, charming. Before submitting it to her agent, she shelved it. Too personal, too revealing, family members might feel hurt or angry. I was disappointed because I thought it was a very important work, but I fully supported her decision. Her next step? She was considering reimagining it as a novel.
Have you ever abandoned a project? Why? I have one novel that I wrote sometime in the 80s and put it away. I take it out every few years and noodle with it, but I’m quite sure it will never be published. The plot just doesn’t sing, and I find myself trying too hard to make it relevant. On the other hand, at 3 am, in 1996, I dreamed an entire novel, got up, and wrote a description. I’ve revised that story perhaps a dozen times…and then, last year, at a friend’s urging, I dusted it off and did a major revision. It was soundly and enthusiastically rejected by several agents until TA-DA! A wonderful agent suggested a few changes, which I’m now doing. Who knows? A quarter-century later, that puppy just might get published. Tenacity…or stupidity…I’m not sure. But I’ve always loved the story, so perhaps there’s a chance. Writing is like going to Vegas and placing a bet. Win or lose; we always go back and try again.
At what point does a writer throw it all out? Once thrown out, can a project be resurrected? I have a friend whose first novel was a bestseller. Wait, let me reword that: I have a friend who threw out ten novels, all rejected by agents, before she figured out what wasn’t working…and what was. She wrote, with these guides in place, and she’s had many NY Times bestsellers since then.
But to answer your question: Yes, a project can be resurrected. As we write, we grow, and what might have seemed perfectly fine and gifted writing ten years doesn’t meet our standards today. So…I urge writers to take that old project and see if there’s still life in it. If it excites you, figure out why. If it drags, why? Answer these questions, and you might be ready to revisit the story.
When did you realize you wanted to write and edit? I wanted to write when I was a child. Perhaps it’s because I was pretty lonely, so creating stories in my head kept me occupied? I’m not sure. I took a few writing courses in college, but praise from my professors terrified me. Besides, in “those days,” girls were directed toward “safe” areas: teaching…and…teaching. I knew I didn’t want to teach, so I went into an unrelated field. In fact, I didn’t start teaching until fourteen years ago…and I’ve loved every minute. Online, in a classroom, at writers’ conferences. It’s heaven. And working with so many writers…well, it almost gives me permission to write. I’m a very good writer, but it’s the storytelling that challenges me. Perhaps that’s why I’ve leaned toward editing.
The editing came quite accidentally. I had an idea for an anthology, it sold, and I found myself editing twenty-one personal essays. I have to add that my very first “client” from this anthology was Jane Smiley. I was terrified. I’d never been a real editor, and I was expected to edit a piece written by a Pulitzer Prize recipient? I made myself sick for days, until my agent reminded me that the editor and author work together. So I did the edits, which were few. Jane was a dream. Now, eight anthologies later, and having worked with some of the top writers in the country, I look forward to each project. It’s a rare and often wonderful relationship, this collaboration between author and editor, and both of us want the same result: the best storytelling possible. I’ve worked with perhaps two hundred writers, and there are very few I would never work with again.
Where do you work? In my home office, at my desk, on my orthopedic chair. I also love to write on airplanes. Or I did when there were still airplane flights. Window seat, laptop activated, the world disappears.
Is silence golden, or do you need music to write by? What kind? I love music—classical, mainly—but it’s purposeless to play when I’m working. I hear nothing. Nothing. A fire engine could pull up in front of my house, sirens piercing the air, and I wouldn’t hear it.
How did you get into teaching? A writer friend was teaching online in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and suggested I apply. I felt quite inadequate until she reminded me of all the courses I had created and taught, and was teaching, workshops, and conferences. UCLA was wonderful, helping me to create several courses, all of them in the Creative Nonfiction section. I teach every term and have now for fourteen years.
What’s your quirkiest quirk? Really? You expect me to reveal that? Okay, let me think. I’m still thinking. Oh, dear, I don’t think I have any! And for a writer, that won’t do! If any of my friends are reading this, I welcome your input. Please, find me a quirk!
Everyone, at some point, wishes for a do-over. What’s yours? That’s an easy one. I started college in pre-med and was talked out of it by an advisor who thought girls couldn’t compete. (Hey, I’m old, this was a long time ago!) So I majored in English. Looking back, journalism would have been a good choice, or some path that would have taken me into politics. I’ve written speeches and position papers for candidates (Congress and US Senate), but running for office might have worked.
A funny side story: in the 80s, the Democratic party asked me to run for Congress. A Democrat had NO chance of winning this district, so they needed a candidate who could lose and not be dogged by the loss. (In other words, had no future in politics!) I declined, they chose another candidate, he lost.
What’s your biggest pet peeve? I have an exceedingly difficult time working with writers who have chosen me to edit their work, but secretly believe their work is perfect. I had one client whose essay was 6,000 words, but the publication was clear that 3,000 was the limit. I edited it down, she refused every edit. When I (almost patiently) explained that it was too long, her response was memorable: “Perhaps, but every word is a poem.”
Where do you go from there?
What’s the best book you’ve ever read? Oh, not fair! Especially with so many dear friends who are published authors. So, let me tell you the novel that made me understand the magic of writing: Ole Edvart Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth. I was a teenager and found myself reading the same paragraphs over and over, struck by the images they created, the way I was transported to that time and place. Wallace Stegner’s novels have had a similar effect on me.
What’s on the horizon for you? I’m hoping to complete the revisions of this mystery novel in the next few weeks…but seeing as how I started writing it in the 90s (yes, another century), who knows? I’m working on a screenplay with a very enthusiastic team, and thinking about a two-act play. The outline and a few scenes are written, but it’s a matter of time. I have another play, my favorite of all, but it has a history. I had written all of Act I and II, on my laptop, in an apartment when I was living abroad. I was robbed. He (yes, I saw him) took not only my laptop, but the backup diskette with the entire play and around sixty pages of research. I’ve tried to recreate it, but it’s quite disheartening.
Anything else you’d like to tell us about yourself or projects? I’m very fortunate, because I truly love what I do. Teaching, editing, writing, collaborating. I’m aging, but I become so lost in my writing that I feel ageless. That is, until I have to rise from my chair…