Michigan Author Monday: Lisa Peers

10670124_386076988209320_5687981732714972528_nTell me a little bit about yourself.
I was born and raised in Virginia, went to Harvard and lived in Massachusetts until 1990, when my partner, our son and I moved to San Francisco. Two more kids later, we relocated to Oakland County in 2006 to be closer to her family, good schools, bumpy cake, and so forth.

During my time in San Francisco I earned my MFA in acting from the American Conservatory Theater and did dozens of musicals and cabaret performances in the San Francisco Bay area. I’ve always maintained a serious day job alongside my artistic career. Right now I am an executive communications manager for a metro Detroit health care system in addition to my work as a writer.

What inspired you to become a writer?

My mother published stories and articles that were carried in everything from Methodist national publications to True Romance. Her stories about my childhood were my favorites, since I had delusions of grandeur even then. The fact that she got published meant that being a working writer was possible, and I wrote poems and stories in high school. However, I turned my creative juices to acting and singing once I hit college. Other than some misguided attempts in the late 1990s like TV-based fanfic (don’t ask what show) and a half-baked first draft of a novel, I didn’t focus on writing fiction until I moved to Michigan.

What was the initial spark of inspiration for your book and how did that develop into the finished novel?

10646704_370759213074431_8100993106534214998_nI didn’t have an easy time getting acting work once I moved here, I didn’t have any friends in the area and I had a lot of creative time on my hands. Listening to music filled the void, fueled by the extensive collection of rock, rhythm, country and blues at my local libraries. Certain songs and musicians snapped into the empty spaces in my life when I needed them most.

About that time I saw a couple of rock documentaries and wondered what a typical day is like for these stars: I mean, does Bruce Springsteen pump his own gas? And what would happen if a civilian fell in love with a rock star: could she have a life and career of her own? That started the wheels turning, and Stee Walsh came out of the blue as the musician who I’d make “the seventh most successful American rock musician in the last 30 years.” I had a first draft about two years later, got a lot of reader feedback and revised it multiple times and – five years after I began – I published my first novel, Love and Other B-Sides.

What is your process as a writer?
I write toward whatever intrigues me the most at the moment – answering a question I had about the characters or putting them into a situation and seeing how they handle it. Then I polish the scenes and connect them to others, and the story unfolds from there. It’s not always efficient, I’ll admit, but it frees up the process so I can stay interested in my work.

Acting and writing are very similar pursuits, in that you create characters who tell stories. I think in dialogue – the building blocks of characters in a play – and write most of my scenes as conversations, then fill in the descriptions afterward.

What do you find most challenging and most rewarding about a writing career?
Constantly redefining “success” is a humbling exercise. Once I had a completed manuscript I thought – like a lot of us, I’m sure – that I was going to find an agent, sell a certain number of books and earn enough attention to be paid an advance to write the next one. Well, that ain’t happening any time soon, and having to do the marketing and sales as well as continuing to write new material is daunting.

I do take a lot of pride in my work, and it’s rewarding to know that family, friends and perfect strangers read and enjoy what I write. I’ve also appreciated getting to know other writers and the chance to support and encourage them as they do for me time and time again.

Do you have any new books in the pipeline?
Remember that half-finished manuscript in the proverbial drawer? I’m revisiting it because the story still intrigues me. The tale – with the working title Desired Effect – uses the story of Eros and Psyche from Greek mythology as the launching point for two young actors to discover true love on a movie set teeming with mythic Hollywood stars. It’s still in the early stages of renovation, but I’ve got a good feeling about this one. It’s not rock and roll, but I like it.

You can keep up with Lisa Peers on her music-themed blog LP on 45.

Who Was That Masked Man?

UntitledRecently I’ve had the opportunity to look through a large stash of family papers related to my great uncle James Jewell, who was the director and part of the team that created The Lone Ranger, which began as a radio series on WXYZ.

The files contained some documents relating to that character and also to shows that were less successful. Many of them shared characteristics with The Lone Ranger.

As I was discussing The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet (my grandmother, Leonore Jewell Allman, played the role of Lenore Case on that program) I thought about all of those masked superheroes created in the 1930s. The Lone Ranger and Superman were both created in 1933. The Green Hornet in 1936. Batman was created in 1939.

I thought about some of the articles I have been writing here about how our culture has changed since the late 19th Century. Victorians enjoyed tragic endings where the protagonists did something noble that was never revealed or rewarded. It occurred to me that these masked heroes of the early 20th Century represent a transitional period in our culture. They manage to embody both ethos through the simple expedient of a secret identity. Their deeds are known and celebrated– as Superman or The Lone Ranger– but their personal identities are not. Like a 19th Century character they do the moral thing for the good of it with no earthly reward. The people in the newsroom never know that Clark Kent is a hero. Yet he is not entirely unacknowledged as his alter ego is praised.

Things I Have in Common with Jared Leto

Writing a book is a major investment of time and energy. Yet I did one of my books entirely for free. (I will not say which one.) Why would I do that? Not intentionally. It was one of my early books. I signed a no advance contract and so there was nothing to earn out. Yet somehow, when the royalty statements arrived in the mail, there were still never any royalties due to me. I can’t believe the publisher sold absolutely no copies or that it cost substantially more to publish this book than most. Even so, I never got a check. On each royalty statement instead there was a list of expenses, copies sold and figures subtracted from the balance, all to explain why the publisher did not owe me anything. Every publishing contract gives the author a right to audit, but I would have had to pay someone to do the audit out of the $0 I earned. I shrugged and moved on. I tend to think of royalty statements, in general, as explanations of why the publisher does not owe you any money.

I just finished watching “Artifact” a documentary that chronicles the legal battle between the band 30 Seconds to Mars and their record label EMI. (It is now available via Netflix streaming.) If you’re not a fan of the band it might not be a film it would occur to you to watch. If you are involved in the publishing industry, however, I would recommend it because the struggles our brothers and sisters in the music business are facing feel eerily familiar.

In an early scene Jared Leto (the band’s frontman, the protagonist and the director of the film using a pseudonym) expressed his frustration that the old way of doing business was not working for record labels or artists. “Why isn’t there a new model?” he asked.

It is a world where every garage band can record a song, make a video and upload them. Just as everyone who writes a short story can upload a pdf. So it is easier and easier to make a record or a book and harder and harder to get attention for it. Artists do not want to have to be business executives, they want to be artists. Yet in a world where publishers and record labels alike are consolidating and becoming risk averse contracts are getting less artist friendly, payments are going down. There is always a sense that you should be able to do better on your own, and yet we are in an in between era where it is still almost impossible to do so.

I am a bit jealous of musicians, to be honest. Even though their album royalties have fallen off they are able to make a living touring and playing their songs. They can at least say, well, the record isn’t making money but it is promotion for the tours. There is no equivalent for the author. Events at which writers appear, for the most part, are unpaid. You speak at the library or sign books at a store in order to sell the books. Books are only promotion for themselves or for other books and if books do not make money you’re in something of a bind.

If you’ve ever been involved in a protracted lawsuit (I have been involved in a lawsuit over an artistic project with my ballet business- long story) you will relate to this film on another level. Lawsuits are absurd and crazy making. They set two sides up as adversaries, try to bully and gain power over the opponent and at some point everyone realizes that they are becoming the characters in Dickens Bleak House. No one is going to win, the main thing is to try to get out of it without having lost it all.

Settlements seem so anti-climactic. They are not the kind of thing that they usually make movies of. Yet that sense of grudging compromise seemed to symbolize the state of the entire industry, where signing the big contract is not a victory and going it alone doesn’t feel like a victory either.

“Why isn’t there a new model?”

Indeed.

Michigan Author Feature: Lev Raphael

Raphael-Lev-2014-165tLev Raphael is nothing if not prolific. He has written 25 books and has not limited himself to one genre– or five. His books have been translated into a dozen languages. He teaches creative writing at Michigan State University.  I asked him a few questions about his eclectic oeuvre.

Assault with a Deadly Lie is your 25th book. Your body of work is so varied it’s hard to even know where to begin. You’ve published short story collections, memoir, self-help, mysteries, novels dealing with Holocaust survivors, biography/literary criticism, essay collections, even vampire fiction. Do you have an agent who goes crazy trying to “brand” you?

I admire those authors who write in one genre and stick to it–because they’re easy to market. That’s just not the way my imagination works. I publish across genres because that’s how I read, that’s how I’ve always read, so I would get bored writing in one genre. I think it’s given me many different, sometimes overlapping audiences, which is not a bad thing, but it probably has kept me from becoming a superstar. :-) As a writer, it’s especially useful for me to be working on more than one book at a time in different genres–that’s refreshing and stimulating. Each book is a true vacation from the other–and I don’t have to put any liquids in a one-ounce bag!
As for agents, I haven’t had one in a long time, and no agent has ever done much to advance my career, though my first agent really boosted my confidence because she was Saul Bellow’s agent and I figured if Bellow’s agent thought I had talent, I probably did. Overall, my most successful books have been un-agented and I don’t see myself having an agent ever again. What’s the point? Especially now in this new publishing world.

How did you go from being someone who liked to write to being a professional writer? Was it a long journey to get published the first time?

My first publication was a short story in Redbook Magazine which at the time had 4.5 million readers. It won the writing contest in my MFA program, judged by a famous editor. I felt blessed, and then I felt almost cursed. Because after that, it took five years before I published my next short story despite what felt like hundreds of submissions everywhere, and then it took over a decade before I finally published my first collection of short stories. By that time, though, they’d almost all appeared in various magazines.

Why five years between first and second story publication? My problem, I think, was that I was ahead of my time in a way. I was publishing short fiction about children of Holocaust survivors before any other writer in the genre, something that isn’t as well-known as it might be because I don’t live in New York which would have given me much more visibility. But the flip side is that I found my spouse of thirty years in Michigan, fell in love with the state the day I crossed the Mackinaw Bridge to the UP at sunset, and established myself as a writer here–so it’s what Elizabeth Bowen says in her novel The Death of The Heart: “Home is where we emotionally live.”

Tell me about your latest book, Assault with a Deadly Lie.

5306-165wIt’s the timeliest book I’ve ever written even though I started it four years ago, because of all the talk in the country about militarized police forces. This is a suspense novel set in the academic world, and it explores the psychological impact of slander, harassment, stalking, police brutality, and the loss of personal safety. My narrator Nick Hoffman finds his secure, happy, college-town life changed forever after a nightmarish encounter with police. But even when that horrible night is over, his life doesn’t return to normal. Someone’s clearly out to destroy him. He and his partner face an escalating series of threats that lead to a brutal and stunning confrontation. What can he do when his comfortable world threatens to collapse? How can he reestablish order in a suddenly chaotic life?

Do you enjoy being able to continue the story of a character from one book to another?
I love it. That’s really one of the joys of writing a series. You have these old friends that you have a regular reunion with, and as writer you’re starting with some givens, some known factors that make for a solid foundation. But they also raise questions: How will they change? How will they be challenged? How will they change you? And because I don’t only write a mystery series, coming back to my recurring characters is even more entertaining. Over the course of the series, I’ve followed the advice of mystery writer Eleanor Taylor Bland: Characters on the periphery have moved to the center and some at the center have moved to the periphery. That’s been a lot of fun to work out.

How is your approach different when writing a mystery than when you write literary fiction?
I’d differentiate a novel from a mystery from suspense. With my mysteries I’ve always started with the murder and generally worked backwards. Who did it and why? How would those questions be answered? What would the roadblocks be? With the new novel, which is suspense, I started with a very dramatic opening event and constructed a series of escalating events that lead ineluctably to something even bigger at the end. I wasn’t sure exactly what that event would be, or how it would play out, or even what each crisis over the course of the book would be. I didn’t outline the book, just let it grow organically almost the way I let the novels grow, but I was conscious of the need to build tension, and for the need to let tension drop periodically. It was a great new set of challenges, which leads back to your first question. Writing in different genres is very challenging, and I love that.

The Nick Hoffman mysteries are set in fictional “Michiganopolis.” How important is the Michigan setting to your fiction?

Extremely important. I’ve lived here half my life and consider myself a Michigander. When I got here in the early 80s, the state was in economic free fall and people were very downhearted and down on the state, which was sad. I traveled around a lot, up north, to the UP as far as Copper Harbor, to both shores of the Lower Peninsula, to towns south of Lansing like Marshall and even went to Beaver Island. I tried to see as much of the state as I could and found it very varied and beautiful. I really said Yes! to Michigan. Remember that ad campaign? I gave my love of the state to the main character of my novel The German Money and also to Nick Hoffman in the mystery series. I even gave him a vacation cottage near Charlevoix that is so real-sounding lots of people have asked me if they could rent it.

Are there any genres you have not tackled yet that you would like to?

Well, I’ve recently moved into new territory. I’m working on what you might call a Biblical novel right now. I have an opening–and a shelf of research books. I’ve done a lot of Torah study and Bible study but that’s not the same as historical research in the period, though I’ve done some of that too. Orienting yourself in the First Century for the purpose of writing fiction, as opposed to reading about it for education or entertainment, that’s very different, so it’s a long-term project. I’ve also got the opening of a historical novel set in Bruges in the early 1300s (and a pile of books related to the subject). That period offers a completely different set of problems for a writer, though Bruges today has many buildings still standing from the 14th century and I fell in love with it on a visit a few years ago, which is why I decided to set a novel there. So i can step back into the past there in a way that will be really helpful the next time I go back.

I haven’t ever done science fiction or fantasy even though those are genres I was in love with when I was much younger–and I’d never rule those out. My career has taken me in unexpected directions–or I should say, my imagination has, and I’m happy to have such a creative, surprising tour guide!

 

Visit Lev Raphael’s website at www.levraphael.com for additional information and a schedule of his upcoming appearances.

I Trust You With this Information Because You’re Cool

319025-pistachio-and-rose-cakeSo here is the power of the word “secret.” I was scrolling through my Twitter feed and I came across this: “Shh, have you heard about Edinburgh’s new secret cake club?”

A secret cake club? How cool, I thought. Yes, I want to be part of that.

Then I remembered, I don’t like cake. Come to that, I am not big on clubs either. So the only thing in the phrase “secret cake club” that could possibly have piqued my interest was “secret.”

The secret cake club (besides being in my favorite city, Edinburgh) seemed exciting because knowing about it made me an insider, part of something non-conformist and reserved for cool people like me. Well, me and whoever else happened to be the recipient of STV Edinburgh’s feed.

Cake.

I guess anything can be made to seem cool as long as you are one of the insiders and the outsiders are not supposed to know.

Michigan Author Monday: Paul Vachon

For the third in our series of features on Michigan authors we check in with Paul Vachon, author of a number of books on Michigan history.

7cc7e03ae7a0fb7283c04210.L._V192633176_SX200_Tell me a little bit about yourself.

Years ago when I was in college, I developed a love for writing—mostly nonfiction and personal essays, which are still me favorite genres. After graduating I went to work in the business world, holding sales positions in a variety of industries but spent most of my time in the retail trade. I did some writing occasionally, but only just for personal enrichment. In 2008, however, the Great Recession resulted in the end of my retail career, so I decided to enter writing (and now a few related areas including public speaking and photography) full time.

What inspired you to become a writer?

As my liberal arts education progressed, I gradually became aware of the “pictures” I could draw not through drawing or painting–but through words instead. I grew to love the descriptive images and ideas that could emerge from the right words and sentences. It really became a part of me. Did you have any special mentors or teachers who helped you along the way?

I didn’t during my early years, but in the recent past I’ve met a number of kind and generous freelancers from around the country. I consider all of them friends, but a few are what I would truly call mentors, who have nurtured me along.

Tell me about your books.

forgotten-detroit-paul-vachon-paperback-cover-artWhen I made my first efforts to enter the profession, I was very frequently turned down due to my lack of experience. It was the classic “chicken and the egg” scenario: you need experience to get work, but how can you get work without any experience? I got my first break when I used my knowledge of Detroit history (which had been a long standing interest of mine) to get a book contact with a publisher open to dealing with first time authors. The idea I presented, a book on stores from Detroit’s past that were little known (or “under the radar” as I like to say) was a tough sell, but they took a chance on me! The resulting book, Forgotten Detroit, has gone on to become one of their most successful titles. I’ve written two other books for the same publisher. One is a series of short biographical profiles on impactful Detroiters, Legendary Locals of Detroit. Another is a “then and now” style book on south Oakland County. I also just finished a revision on a travel guidebook on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for a different publisher. It will be released next spring.

What is your process as a writer?

I approach my writing as a business—a creative one, but still a business. Much of my time is spent not actually writing, but in researching markets, developing story and book ideas and preparing queries and proposals. I also devote a fair amount of time to social media marketing and online networking. Also, I’ve recently spent time studying photography, which I hope to offer to editors along with my writing services. When I land an assignment, however, everything else takes a back seat. I first take my original query or proposal and use it as a foundation for developing an outline for the piece. Next comes research, interviews with sources and then the actual writing. Naturally, this is the part of my job I love the most!

Did you learn anything you did not know about Detroit in the process of researching your books?

Yes! I found out a good amount about pre-automotive Detroit, and how its array of machine shops and foundries allowed for the birth of what became the city’s preeminent industry.

Do you have any new books in the works?

Not currently, but I am working on developing some new ideas.

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A Quite Interesting Question. Why Don’t Americans Like Comedy Panel Shows?

1556d46c25e3ca64cd078151e136588a4d1c6aebIn the past year or so, thanks to Youtube and Hulu, I have become aware that the UK has an entire genre of program that we seem not to have, at least not that I have noticed. The best known example of it is probably QI, hosted by Stephen Fry, but there are a number of them. They are comedy panel shows, ostensibly game shows, but there are no actual prizes and no one is trying to win anything except a laugh.

A show like Real Time with Bill Maher brings a panel of smart, funny people together each week, but there the similarity ends. Real Time is a comedy version of Meet the Press. Maher’s guests are a combination of comedians and real political representatives and the banter is intended to be political satire and commentary. The guests are trying to make real points.

QI and its sisters (Never Mind the Buzzcocks and Mock the Week are examples) are a bit like a Friday game night where your pals come over and you bring out the board games and get to talking and forget whose turn it is next and don’t much care. Except the panelists are cleverer– or at least better edited– than your friends.

We do have Hollywood Game Night but the competition in that show is real and the non-celebrity contestants can take home $25,000. In this it has more in common with old game shows like Hollywood Squares, Liar’s Club or Match Game.

The panel shows are hit or miss affairs. They lack the comfortable guarantee of the set-up, punch-line pacing of a sit-com or the inherent drama of a real competition. Some groups of guests click better than others. But there is a kind of adventure in not quite knowing how it is all going to turn out or, indeed, sometimes if they are ever going to get to the point, any point, at all. (“I don’t think there’s a punchline scheduled, is there?“- Monty Python) This, I think, is what makes these kind of shows somewhat incomprehensible to U.S. audiences. We’re far too goal oriented for them.

QI has run for 12 seasons for the BBC, and surely a TV executive here has market tested the idea to American audiences. It has to be cheap to produce compared to standard Hollywood fare, and potentially profitable. Americans, in spite of our competitive DNA, embraced Whose Line is it Anyway, a British import that is set up as a competition but with no prizes and points given out at the random whim of the host.

It is hard to put my finger on what exactly is the difference between Whose Line and QI. I think it is the aspect of having a quiz and knowledge questions and not actually rewarding anyone for knowing stuff. The QI questions are designed to be almost impossibly hard and yet there is no Jeopardy champion.

The American narrative is, at its heart, a story about competition. We may not have QI, but we have Top Chef where people talk about making a winning soufle as if their lives depended on it. We have endless unscripted television dramas (reality series) which mimic scripted series. They have winners and losers, people pitted against one another. They don’t just need to survive together on a desert island– someone needs to be the last one standing. That is what a story is. It is how we understand the world. It is how our nightly news likes to frame stories. If our news consumption patters are anything to go on, we want to know which political party will be the winner in the battle over Obamacare much more than we want to have anyone to explain to us what Obamacare actually consists of. Competition is the essence of American entertainment. The idea that it can be fun watching a bunch of people not competing? That is downright un-American.