As a young man I rode freight trains around the country – pausing in boxcars, under streetlamps, and in hobo jungles to record the beats and rhythms of the road. My upcoming novel The Last Professional — which began in a boxcar 40 years ago— will be released in January, 2022. My short stories have appeared in numerous literary journals, and my novella, In All Things, and my collection of travel narratives, Road Stories, have both been Amazon Top Ten bestsellers. I’m particularly proud of my death row thriller, A Matter of Time, which was written in real time – twenty-four hours -as the last day of the hero’s life unfolds.
# What is/are the real-life story(ies) behind your book(s)?
Though I’ve written millions of words, I believe that my best work is informed by experience. The Last Professional is set in the world of thundering freight trains and the vagabonds who ride them, because that is a world I came to know well when I was a young man. My novella In All Things is a slightly fictionalized account of my training year, as a seventeen-year-old, at what was then the largest institution for those with intellectual disabilities in the United States. Road Stories details my travels, from the Andes, to Africa, to a presidential inauguration, to a lonely stretch of Route 66 on an Oklahoma summer night. And like the hero of A Matter of Time, (though I’ve never been on death row), I have worked as a community organizer with dedicated people facing steep odds in their quest to make a better life for themselves and their neighbors.
# What inspires/inspired your creativity?
Though it has taken me years to come to understand this, I write because I have a deep-seated need to connect, and to share my work — and through it, myself — with others. My creativity serves that need.
# How do you deal with creative block?
I’m a hiker, and a trail runner, and much of my best work comes when I’m alone in nature. And there is nothing like travel to get the pen moving. I think we see ourselves and our world the most clearly when viewed against an unfamiliar backdrop.
# What are the biggest mistakes you can make in a book?
To overthink it. Write first, worry later.
# Do you have tips on choosing titles and covers?
The best titles seem to emerge from the work. I’ll often start a story, or a novel, with a provisional title – just something to call it until the right title presents itself. As to covers, while it has become quite a science, I’m often reminded of the famous William Goldman quote in regards to expert advice, . . . “Nobody knows anything”.
He wasn’t being facetious, just honest. If the experts were always right, then every movie, every novel and cover would be a hit! My advice . . . pick a design that speaks to you. That’s a pretty good indicator that it will also speak to your potential readers.
# How do bad reviews and negative feedback affect you and how do you deal with them?
Bad reviews hurt. Some authors claim that they are not affected by them, and perhaps that’s true. But it reminds me of the old saying about ship captains – there are two types: those who admit that they’ve run aground, and those who don’t.
# How has your creation process improved over time?
I’ve developed a better ear when it comes to understanding what does and doesn’t work within my own work. It isn’t that I don’t make as many false starts, or take as many wrong turns, but I’m much better at recognizing when I’ve made a misstep.
# What were the best, worst, and most surprising things you encountered during the entire process of completing your book(s)?
The Last Professional is fiction, yet it is informed throughout by my personal adventures riding the rails, and by my life experience. Like Lynden, the protagonist, I was separated from my father at an early age, and only knew him as a vague memory— his absence was a presence. Also, like Lynden, I was sexually molested as a boy. As writers I think we invest ourselves in our work for a number of reasons. We strive to engage readers by creating stories that resonate with their own lives, and to forge human connections that are rewarding – and if we are very lucky – illuminating. For me the most interesting aspect of this story, in its 40 year journey from a boxcar to its release, has been my evolving relationship to it. When I first wrote it, I was in my late twenties and identified with Lynden, the young man returning to the rails to confront his past. When I came back to it, after letting it languish for decades, I identified with The Duke, the old professional hobo who is clinging to his vanishing way of life. Now, as The Last Professional is finding an audience, I find myself identifying with Lynden again; the boy who was never seen by his father, and who never allowed the wounds of his youth to heal. As a writer approaching his 70th birthday, finally facing those issues of my youth, rather than telling myself that they were behind me, is something I did not expect, but that I’ve come to understand is long overdue, and necessary.
# Do you tend towards personal satisfaction or aim to serve your readers? Do you balance the two and how?
My goal is always to create characters, conflicts, settings and situations that resonate with my readers on an emotional level. The best stories invite readers to experience them through the lens of their own experience, while at the same time offering them a different perspective on the events of their lives.
# What role do emotions play in creativity?
Creativity is how emotion takes form. For me, it’s that simple.
# Do you have any creativity tricks?
If I ever did, they have become so ingrained after all these years that they’ve blended with my natural writing rhythms.
# What are your plans for future books?
I’ve finished a long novel, Four in Stone, set in a fictional northern California town ( O’Farrell) which is based on Sebastopol, where I grew up. And I’m wrapping up a short story collection also set there.
# Tell us some quirky facts about yourself
I’m a masters level discus thrower, currently ranked #2 in the world in my age bracket. And I considered becoming a professional Roller Derby skater when I was eighteen while trying to figure out what to do next. Instead, I caught a freight train and saw the world.
Thanks for these great questions!