Friday, October 23, 2015

From the Bookshelf: ONE MAN'S CASTLE by J. Michael Major

There’s a moment early on in J. Michael Major’s brilliant crime novel, One Man's Castle, where it grows increasingly more difficult to breathe. The reader begins to believe he’s there, underneath that house, not simply observing the confrontation between tragic homeowner Walter Buczyno and unwanted return visitor Harris, the young punk who first broke into the Buczyno house when Walter’s wife Dottie lay dying in an upstairs bedroom. Down there, aware of the icy cold filtering in through the smashed basement window Harris used to access the house, and then standing outside with Riehle and Capparelli, the detectives assigned to the case when pipes frozen by Harris’s home invasion lead police to uncover human remains in the Buczyno crawlspace, thus forcing Walter to flee. The brutal Chicago winter is like another main character in Major’s fantastic page-turner, in which equal time is split between Buczyno’s flight and the detectives’ pursuit of a man they at first label a serial killer. A fantastic read, I couldn't put Mike's novel down -- it's the perfect novel for these increasingly short, dark days. It's a great read for any time of the year, in fact.

I first had the privilege of getting to know Mike after we both appeared in Splatterlands, an anthology of unapologetic, gore-soaked horror published by the fine folks at Grey Matter Press. Since, he's become a valued colleague and friend. It was my pleasure to sit down and talk with Major, who took home the 2014 Lovey Award for his novel (handed out at the annual Love is Murder conference), and which was just released in paperback from Worldwide Suspense, a division of Harlequin.

What is it about the crime drama/mystery genre that inspires you as a writer and reader?
The fact that it allows me a venue where I can explore issues that anger/irritate/frighten me in the context of a story. My ideas often come from a combination of something I have read or seen combined with a completely different event that I’ve watched on the news, and I think: If I twisted both of these ideas a certain way and combined them, what would be the result? The crime/mystery genre, like the horror genre, allows the writer to explore the various gray areas that define good versus evil in our complex and confusing modern world. And I try I present them in a way that readers can relate to. 

Please open the door and invite us into your writing space -- what would we see?
There are a couple of places in our house where I enjoy writing. One is at the desktop computer in the corner of our family room. I am surrounded by books written by my favorite authors, photos of my family, and a shelf of reference books when I need to consult something. There is a window above the shelf where I keep my Lovey award, though I usually keep the shades closed. In this space, the surrounding darkness helps me focus on the intense action and horrific scenes. My other favorite space is at the dining room table, where I often open the window to enjoy the view of our backyard and smell the scents of everyday living, like freshly mown grass or something cooking on the grill. Here is where I usually write the lighter, down-to-earth scenes in the story.

One Man’s Castle is an intense page-turner -- muscular writing, engaging story and characters. Share the back-story behind the creation of your novel with us.
Well, first, thank you very much for saying that it is an intense page-turner! I sincerely appreciate it. The novel started out as a combination of two short stories, “One Man’s Castle” and “The Grieving Puppeteer.” I had been writing short stories for many years. My writing friends kept pushing me to write a novel, and I kept fighting it, saying I didn’t have the time needed to write one. But after the short story of the same name was done, the characters of the detectives didn’t shut up in my head, so I knew there was something more there that my mind wanted to explore. The first thing I did was read and analyze how other authors expanded their stories without simply turning them into longer, padded versions. (One example was how Lawrence Block converted “By the Dawn’s Early Light” into When the Sacred Ginmill Closes.) In the OMC short story, Walter got off the plane and the detectives immediately apprehended him. So the first thing I needed to do was not have him get on the plane coming home. OK. Then where would he go? What would he do? The short story version also had the detectives already working together. How about if I showed them meeting for the first time? What are their back stories? What might their conflicts and motivations be? Then I took Walter’s story of pent-up, long-term rage and contrasted it with the initial shock of the puppeteer’s loss and his downward spiral into insanity, and wove them together. I wrote down all the ideas, then put them in order in an outline with chapters that only had a one or two sentence description. This gave me the general idea of what needed to happen and where, but allowed me the flexibility to discover other things during the writing of each chapter. (One example was when Walter stops along the Mississippi River to take a leak and sees something that is very important for later. I was very depressed at the time I was writing this chapter, and I realized that at this point in the story, Walter might consider suicide. So I used my own depression to enhance what he was feeling. I hadn’t planned on that at all, and it made the scene more vivid.) Like this, I treated each chapter as a short story, making it more bite-sized and less intimidating, checking each one off as I went along, until I put them all together and finally completed the novel.

(the hardcover release of ONE MAN'S CASTLE)
What’s the J. Michael Major creative process?
Sadly, “haphazard” is probably the best description. As I said earlier, the initial ideas come from a combination of two separate events that need to “percolate” in my head for a while. My day job is time consuming, and while I am able to jot down ideas or phrasings here and there, most of my actual writing is limited to Wednesdays and Sundays. I also can’t just sit down and crank out a few pages. Like a Method actor, I need to become the character -- what does he see, feel, smell -- before I can begin writing. So this takes time. Then there is the fact that I write out of order. I long ago learned that I don’t write linearly. I wasted a lot of time trying to write the way everyone wanted me to. I finally realized that if Chapter Four is next on the list, but Chapter Seven is playing in my head, then I had better work on Chapter Seven. All the kinks could be worked out later during revisions. That’s what word processing is for. Never think “Oh, I’ll remember how I wanted to write that when I get to it,” because you won’t. Staying in the moment keeps things fresh and detailed. Honestly, I wish I could say that I was more disciplined. But hopefully by reading this, those readers who have hectic lives and want to write a novel, but are overwhelmed by the process, will think: “Well, heck, if that unorganized guy can do it, so can I!”

What are you presently working on?
I am writing my second novel that uses the same detectives from One Man’s Castle, as well as a couple of short stories. Thanks for asking, and for this great opportunity. I had a blast!

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