Tuesday 24 July 2018

Interview: Michael Stephenson

Today I am thrilled to be welcoming author Michael Stephenson to The Writing Greyhound for a chat about his novel The Man On The Roof.

Firstly, please could you introduce yourself?
I am Michael Stephenson, author of the new psychological mystery thriller The Man On The Roof. I have written at least eight books currently on sale at Amazon. Also, I have released two serials: The Writer currently in season 4, and Extraordinary currently in season 2.
How did you first become interested in writing?
I wasn’t so much interested in writing as I was in storytelling. It was through film that I came to writing. I’ve always wanted to be part of the film/TV industry but I discovered that some of the stories I wanted to tell had too great of depth and detail for the screen alone. Also, I realized that to be the ultimate creator and not just the curator of an idea (movie directors, actors, producers) you had to be at the genesis of a story. You had to be the writer. So I became what I thought was necessary to entertain, challenge and create art.
Tell me about The Man On The Roof.
The Man On The Roof was written to be an experience rather than just a novel. On the surface, it is “about” a 17-year-old boy’s murder. It happens at the end of a quiet lane in suburban Ohio. The suspects: The five couples of varying ages that live in the houses in front of the murder scene. Someone is hiding a secret worth killing for, and the victim knew that secret. 
the-man-on-the-roof, michael-stephenson, book
I designed The Man On The Roof to be a re-readable challenge to mystery lovers who often either guess the twist or know who did it after a few chapters. It has a slew of mysteries that it beckons you to solve before the reveals begin to pile on at the end of the novel. And in doing so, it briefly explores some of the darker themes we encounter in society on a daily basis. Everything from self-harm to racial tension to ageism is touched on in the book. It’s a novel that, regardless of how you feel about it, once you read it, it will stick with you, and quite possibly in unsettling ways. I would actually compare it to Gillian Flynn's work. Fans of Gone Girl or Sharp Objects should find it engrossing.
What drew you to the psychological aspect?
I’m fascinated not by why people decide to do bad things, but by why other people are so fascinated with someone else’s bad nature. For instance, why is the world obsessed with true crime stories right now? Why do we want a villain we can identify with or why do we foolishly believe that villains are always the heroes in their own stories? Note that the latter doesn’t tend to apply to real-life villains. The majority of killers, serial killers especially, know they’re sick and doing wrong but continue to do it anyway because of some compulsion. Rarely do we get a Son of Sam who was convinced that he was saving people by killing them because his dog told him to. We usually get a Ted Bundy or insert mass shooter, someone who has suffered a past pain so they want to inflict pain on others. There’s no “hero in my own story” there. Yet, people are fascinated by the bad and want to make sense of other’s evils. To me that is the main reason why one would write a psychological novel, not to explore the killer(s) mind but to look at the people around them. In my opinion, the reader’s opinion of each character in the book and how the plot unfolds says more about them than it does about the characters or even me as an author.
Did you have to do any research for the book?
Yes, I did a little. For starters, a lot of what’s in the book is in the news. I also crafted the book based around what I’ve seen from readers on popular book sites like Goodreads. I can’t go into it here because it would constitute a spoiler at the moment, but there’s a full layer of the novel that could easily be missed by readers who no longer dig into books for deeper interpretations. Hint: the book is very much about the reader and not just the story. But as far as research, I can’t reveal much of what I did regarding that either because it would constitute a spoiler. Funny enough, I crafted this into the structure of the novel: It’s nearly impossible to talk about without dropping some spoilers. If I say even one thing about a character, then the reader might look for it and figure things out too quickly. So I had to be extra careful in what wording I chose both in the novel and throughout this blog tour. I’ll say this: It has a small element of the #MeToo movement in it that widens the conversation.
How did you get inspiration?
It really just came to me. I’ve told the story about how I was originally going to write a short story that mimicked the Twilight Zone episode in which William Shatner’s character sees a man on his plane, and how that drastically changed into what The Man On The Roof is. Outside of that, there was no one strike of inspiration. I didn’t even start researching until after I had started to write the book. It was a moment of “this is a story that I can tell and this is the way I can tell it.” I did have to think consciously about all the layered ideas within the story. It’s dense with ideas that can be and most likely are missed. But as far as inspiration, there really wasn’t anything for me to feed off of at the time I first wrote the novel. It wasn’t until years later when I started coming up with comparisons. I think we sometimes get too lost in inspiration as both writers and readers. For me, there’s only true inspiration half of the time. Usually, a story just pops into my head for no reason. I’ll write it and sometimes I release it, sometimes I don’t. That probably sounds bad, but it’s really that simple.
What’s your writing process?
Chaotic, yet mentally organized. I start by building the character profiles which usually takes about a day or two. If I can’t fully envision a character from head to toe and see their past and their future from the start, then chances are high that the character is superfluous. Then I will usually know where I want to go, where I want to start and one or two scenes/circumstances in the middle and I will go from there. I’ll write the scenes that immediately come to me first, leave a few notes at the end of the day for the next time I write, then pick through those notes when I return to the keyboard. So long as what I’m writing gets me to the end how I originally saw it, I’m generally pleased. However, I have to say that I switch writing styles and processes depending on the project at hand. I feel I have to be a storyteller first, so whatever serves the story best is what I go with. For instance, on my two serials, I have a completely different process. Due to the structure and expansiveness of those narratives (they are written to mimic a TV series) I have to plot out every single beat of the story for the entire season. Each season is either 10 or 15 episodes, roughly three times the length of The Man On The Roof, which I’m told is a long read. So, it varies.
What’s the hardest thing about writing?
My normal go-to answer for this is grammar, but in thinking about that question more critically, I’ll actually say that there isn’t anything that hard about writing, as there is about the process of being or trying to be an author. I’ve been doing this for a while now, and I can go on and on about the setbacks I’ve experienced, about the harassment, about the deals that magically disappeared, about stolen work and the like. What I’ve learned over the years is that the hardest part about this pursuit is not being understood. Writers, true writers, only write for two reasons: either to understand or to be understood. Sometimes that “understand”ing is to understand one’s self and sometimes it’s an outward thing to understand the world. So when readers misinterpret things, that is what kills. That and not being read at all. I would say this: It is easy to write something false, difficult to write something true and even harder to understand truth without bias. That probably sounds like a puzzle or a rant into the void for your readers, but hopefully, it’ll make sense in a few years. I’ll leave it at that.
Which authors inspire you?
It depends on what you mean. If we’re talking about strictly through their writing, then I’d go with Stephen King, Gillian Flynn, and Dean Koontz. If we’re talking about through their life and the way they lived, which I believe is definitely a factor when we look back on “the greats,” then I’d say Poe, King, and Emily Dickinson. Each one’s life represented/s varying forms of the struggle of being a writer. They also show how some work is not always ready to be received when it is written. As for the authors I chose solely on their work, I think that they all write in a way that is intrinsically creative and uninhibitedly free. Their narratives are truthful to their characters, and they really aren’t concerned with offending. They break the writing rules both narratively and grammatically and get away with it because the stories are so involved. I think that’s what most writers want to do but either don’t have the fanbase to do it or aren’t fully brave enough to put themselves out there like that.
Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?
Don’t always ascribe to the advice you get in your creativity classes (creative writing, writing, drama, other art classes). I think because we’ve all taken the same classes that say the similar things about art critique it’s started to heavily influence how we consume something BEFORE we’ve even consumed it, which is going to lead to bad entertainment. I think this is what’s happening in the film industry right now. We’re going into films with too many expectations about what that particular film is supposed to be and what it should be doing at every beat. The moment it doesn’t hit that, we’re ready to crucify the film without greater thought. We’re concerned with what we think a piece of entertainment should have accomplished as opposed to what it was actually trying to accomplish. It all boils down to writers writing the story first and foremost. Don’t try to write to expectations because the story will come off as bland. Don’t just “write what you know” because no matter how much you think you know about something, whether it’s being a junky or being a neurosurgeon, someone will always say they’ve had a different experience. Don’t feel like you just have to write how you see the world. 
It’s similar to as Gillian Flynn once said. Most murder writers are actually optimistic, well-adjusted people. Just because a book is dark doesn’t mean that’s how she sees the world. No, above all write the story as it comes to you. Writers, especially ones who haven’t written much, often battle with their stories because they won’t let the narratives come to them naturally. They try to force-think the story down a certain road and then get writer's block when it doesn’t follow that path. They're allowing their own expectations to muddle the narrative. Write the story without thinking about restrictions. Worry about those later if you must.
What are you currently working on?
I actually had to take a break and do some reassessment of my career. I sometimes go through these bouts of what I call writer’s apathy, which is worse than writer’s block. Writer’s block implies that you can’t think of what to write next. I know exactly what I should write next, but I’m having a hard time gathering the conviction to do it. Right now, I’m (sorta) still working on the edits for my next psychological mystery thriller The Ones That Stare (is it number 4? People who have read The Man On The Roof will get that question). I originally had it planned for a December release but that may be pushed back to January or February of next year. It’s another book that, hopefully, breaks the normal mold of what people are used to in these kinds of novels. It’s a much simpler narrative than The Man On The Roof. We’ll see if I can gather the strength to finish these revisions from my editor and get it out for review.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’m currently not reading anything fictional. I was reading a short horror story by Dicey Grenor called Along Came a Killer. That was good if you are a fan of the wider novel series. She’s an independent author in the romance-horror genre.  
Anyway, right now I’m reading a book on aerodynamics and another book on engineering and researching articles on graphene. Have to get my research at some point.
What’s your all-time favourite book?
You know, someone else asked me this same question and I might have given a book by Stephen King or something. I’ll always prefer the Bible over most other stories, non-fiction or fictional. I’d have to say that I don’t have a favourite book. I love story too much to choose just one. I think this question is made even tougher because I’m not a sentimental person, so I don’t bond with stories as much as others. But I guess if I had to pick one, I’d say Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton (I picked this book as the one I would write if I could). It’s always fascinating to see the lengths that people will go to fulfil a dream or desire, which the book perfectly shows.
What are your ambitions for your writing career?
I want to get back to writing film and television. I know some novelists and readers cringe at that and want to dissuade from writing novels as some springboard to write film but I had written for film before, so... Plus, I think that in order to stay relevant these days many writers are trying to vertically integrate so that they are writing on all levels of the entertainment and art spectrum. I’d like to release a book of poetry, but that will probably be far down the line. I’d like to explore new and different ways to tell a story, something which I have already ventured into doing with my serials Extraordinary and The Writer. And I want to explore whatever theme may come to mind. I want to infuse more artistry into my writing than what is maybe in a lot of the stuff that we read today. And I definitely want to entertain. I, unlike a lot of writers, don’t want to be the next great American writer or the next Stephen King or Ernest Hemingway, I just want to write with purpose and actually be read.
What are your interests outside of writing and reading?
Outside of writing and film, I’ve always enjoyed hiking and biking. I also love swimming. I’ve wanted to hike one of these long trails throughout the US for so long. We have a few here, but I think most people know of the Pacific trail. It was chronicled in the book Wild by Cheryl Strayed and again in the Reese Witherspoon/Jean-Marc Vallee film of the same name. Unfortunately, I have severe back issues that require I not be on my feet or vertical throughout most of my day. Hopefully, I’ll get surgery soon.  
I also dabbled in inventing in my younger days. I had a few good ideas but I got sidetracked by my first love of storytelling, so I haven’t revisited my inventions. I’m thinking I might have to revisit a few now that technology has caught up with my imagination and original inventions. Unfortunately, the name Michael Stephenson might be better known in another forum first, before people know me as a writer and entertainer.
The Man On The Roof is available to buy now. For more about Michael and his writing, you can check out his blog or follow him on Twitter.

Will you be grabbing a copy of the book? Let me know in the comments below!

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