Thursday, June 2, 2011

The "Pink Phoenix" Interview w/Sue Owen and Moi!

I met Sue Owen on Twitter last week. Sue's blog, the Pink Phoenix, is dedicated to supporting indie authors (God bless her!) and she posts book reviews and author interviews. Sue is going to read January Moon and post a review sometime soon but she asked if she could interview me first and I happily agreed.

Sue wanted a less-traditional interview; she wasn't interested in an author's typical advice to wannabees and the other more usual questions. She wanted something "meatier" and I think I gave it to her. I'm posting the interview below and would also encourage you to follow her blog. If you're an indie, please ask her to review your work and/or interview you. If you want to support indies and want some great recommendations for your summer reading, please check it out at the Pink Phoenix (I'll give the link at the end of the interview below).

Interview between Sue Owen and Maureen Gill

SO: Hi Maureen, thanks for this interview opportunity.

MG: Hey, Sue; my pleasure. I like your blog; I’m glad to be a part of the work you’re doing to promote indies. What’s on your mind? What do you want to discuss?

SO: Primarily, I’m looking for insight into you as a writer.

MG: You mean like what makes me tick; who am I? 

SO: Well, let’s start with how you’d describe yourself as a person, and then we can discuss your writing.

MG: The foremost thing I know about myself is I’m a survivor. I’ve crawled out of some major train wrecks; some of my own making, some not. I’ve survived mental illness, a suicide attempt, a short stint in a federal prison camp (like Martha Stewart), and above all, absolute despair. I’ve fallen from being a respected and admired person to a person who was a pariah among family and so-called friends. I’ve had to rebuild my life from the ground up; I’m still working on it. It’s a process.

Most people credit God with their survival and I suppose I do too but in a more oblique way; I credit my passion for – and training in – history for helping me survive (and God gave me that now, didn’t She?). As a historian I’ve studied great human tragedy, as well as the indomitable survivors of those tragedies. I’ve studied the lives of great people who have overcome their own flawed characters and gone on to live remarkable lives. I’ve actually met Holocaust survivors who lost all of their loved ones and wore Nazi tattoos and lived with the memories of unspeakable horrors and yet chose to start over and gamble with life again. Who could do that? I can’t imagine that sort of courage but I take my inspiration from it; many a time I’ve said to myself “for God’s sakes, this is chicken shit compared to Dachau; you can do this thing, you can push through it....” I’ve also met people who have done dreadful things and paid the price but now give back through lives of service. Those are the models I keep in my heart.

Above all, I suppose, I also know the greater part of my life has been very successful. The unhappier times are actually a small part of the total; I’ve done many good things, some even extraordinary things. I’ve even saved lives; in once instance because I wasn’t successful in my own suicide I lived to prevent another one. In another, my quick thinking saved a man in a medical crisis. I know I’ve shaped more than a few lives for the better at work or in teaching in the classroom and now at this stage in my life there’s not a week that goes by since I published “January Moon” and started blogging that I don’t receive emails from people all over the world pouring their hearts out to me, telling me how I’ve touched them, or inspired them, or shown them how to see things differently.

So, all of this – knowing that people have survived the unthinkable and understanding that my life has a purpose – is what composes my core being and defines me in my mind. I think that’s how I’ve arrived at truly understanding the full meaning of Maya Angelou’s famous saying, “I can be changed by what happens to me but I refuse to be reduced by it.”

I saw a sign outside a church the other day that said, “If you have a pulse, you have a purpose.” I believe that.

SO: How would you define yourself as a writer?

MG: That’s a much tougher question than how I define myself as a person! Honestly, I’m not sure. I probably don’t even give it much thought. Writing comes to me as naturally as breathing and I’ve never suffered the typical writer’s angst but I’ll tell you what some other people think, OK?  My style has been compared to Michael Connolly and Sue Kidd Monk, as well as Lee Child, John LeCarre and Raymond Chandler. I rarely read contemporary fiction and of these five authors I’ve only read Sue Kidd Monk’s “The Life of Bees” (which I adore) and John LeCarre (but I haven’t read him in years). I do love John Grisham.

The truth is I’m fairly well steeped in the literature of Steinbeck and Hemingway but really love the Southern writers like Tennessee Williams, James Agee, Erskine Caldwell, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Twain, Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren. Come to think of it, that’s probably why I like Grisham; he’s a southerner. 

However, I'm very much a Midwestern Yankee. Someone said my writing is like a “gale force wind off Lake Michigan” which thrills me no end even though I don’t know for sure what the hell it means. 


I grew up on Chicago’s far north lakefront and love the lake and the city.

The most curious thing I’ve been told about my style is that I write like a man. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told that; again, not sure what it means. I’m definitely not a man.

My friend, Denny Banahan, a retired Chicago homicide cop, suggested I publish “January Moon” either using only my initials or under a pseudonym. His reasoning was that men don’t read detective stories written by women. I’ve heard it since from other men; some have told me they liked my book because I sounded like “a guy.” Yet there are very strong feminist themes in “January Moon,” themes about family, motherhood etc. Another female writer I know told me “yeah, they’re there -- but so well hidden a man will miss them!” I think that’s pretty funny.

SO: I read your reviews and they’re excellent. Do you read your reviews? Are they important to you?

MG: They’re only important insofar as they encourage people to read “January Moon.” I believe in this book; it has a lot to say that I’d like more openly discussed and understood and so at that level reviews are very important because they can push sales. I’m very grateful so many readers have taken time to write in-depth reviews; some are quite detailed and thoughtful. Readers have been very generous in their praise.

But if you’re asking if the reviews are important to me as a person and writer -- meaning whether I need praise to validate me as an author – the answer is no.

SO: Are you really that confident? Most writers wallow in a lot self doubt.

MG:  I understand the angst, the doubt. Been there, done that. Oh my God: yes! But I’ve been able to move beyond that and shake off the fear and insecurity. I know I can write and in that regard I have been validated; I may have won every award for writing that’s possible to win at the university I attended.

Obviously, writing fiction is quite different from the style of writing I’ve been trained to do and I understand that just because someone writes non-fiction well doesn’t that person can write fiction.  I always wanted to write fiction and when I tried in the past I was unhappy with the results.  For whatever reason when I sat down to write this time it finally felt right for me and I knew I could write fiction reasonably well.

People who have known me the longest, and even some of my students, have said that they can “hear” me talking in the book. One of my oldest friends said, “Oh Mick, I sometimes could hear your voice, your comments; even see you telling a joke.” I’ve always been a fairly entertaining story teller; I could turn a history lecture into either high drama or slapstick, depending on the subject.

I wrote “January Moon” as if I was just telling any other story, any interesting event in society or history but I also laid it out as a historian would if a historian was trying to get a handle on a major event and write about it. I had the raid on the Branch Davidians in mind, in Waco, Texas, when I wrote about the cult in the book and a federal raid on the compound. As a professional historian, if I were going to write about Waco, I’d go down there and interview everyone, top to bottom, and get their stories. In January Moon I incorporate a lot of related stories throughout the main story. I transitioned point-of-view much like a historian might.  I was in conversation with three agents last summer; one of them was with a really important agency but they didn’t get it. They wanted a formulaic book. One agent actually told me the story was “too sophisticated” for the average American reader; another asked me to dumb it down.

Dumb it down? That really offended me.

I told her that maybe some of the reason this country is “dumbing down” is because the gatekeepers have been offering up a lot of fiction that plays to the lowest common denominator among us. I told her I write books that I would want to read and no one needs to dumb anything down for me. She also told me that John Steinbeck couldn’t get published today; she said “no one would read Steinbeck.” Well, I would. I’m not on his league and never will be but he is a model in my mind for superior American fiction.

I’ve gone too far and chewed too much dirt to whore out my work at this point in my life. My fiction might fail on a lot of levels but it won’t be because it’s been dumbed down to please people with 8th grade educations. I can’t write at that level anyway so it’s probably a moot point.

I guess at this point I need to pause and say “thank God for independently publishing.” I think it shifts power and changes the gatekeepers.

I’d never say I’m a great fiction writer but I would like to become one. I’m still learning and exploring my own style and voice. I hope each book is better than the last. But all I had to do to convince myself to publish “January Moon” was convince myself that it’s a reasonably good effort for an inexperienced fiction writer’s debut novel. It represents my best effort at the time and although it’s not perfect I think it still works and I’m not embarrassed to claim it as mine. Could it be better? Sure. Could it have been worse? Of course.

Once I satisfied myself “January Moon” is a respectable first effort I moved into a place of reasonable contentment. Once I decided, after extensive research, that independent publishing was a viable and respectable option, then I moved in that direction too.  

SO: You write with a lot of conviction and “January Moon” touched on a number of controversial topics. Are you going to do the same thing with “March Storm” and any other books in the “Del Carter Calendar Series”?

As you know, “January Moon,” is the first novel to situate female genital mutilation within the context or genre of an American detective story and this is creating a lot of buzz but it’s also about so much more and yes I guess I have a lot of convictions and passions. I hate racism, religious fanaticism, political absurdities but I also love strong people, good stories, and optimism and hope. I write about all of that in “January Moon.” I’m writing about animal abuse, puppy mills, dog fighting, and human trafficking in “March Storm,” as well as a mad Mother Earth and climate change.

I’m also writing a history book titled “Daylight & Déjà vu” that’s an outgrowth of my blogging about history and politics. I’d like to write some historical fiction too but right now I really want to prioritize my writing to finish “March Storm” and then begin the third book in the Del Carter Calendar Series. I’m not sure I’ll write 12 books but I’m fairly certain I can generate four or five in a series.

Sue provides links to my website, blogs, and the book at the end of the interview. Here's the link to her blog:
Pink Phoenix
Pink Phoenix Press recently published Sue's "The Sword's Journey," which is a work of YA/Teen Sci-Fi Fantasy. Here's the link to "The Sword's Journey" at Smashwords: The Sword's Journey.

Enjoy your day!

No comments:

Post a Comment