This week’s Indie Interview is with Michael Reed, whose first novel Songs from Richmond Avenue has been incredibly well received, and has plenty of four and five-star reviews from its readers.
Hi, Mike. Welcome to Read A Lot.
Q: Had you always planned on becoming a published author?
A: I think from a fairly early age, and by early age I mean when I was in my teens, I had a vague idea that I would write a novel, eventually. From the time I got out of college until just the past few years I’ve worked at newspapers, for the most part, and really didn’t feel much like writing when I wasn’t at work dealing with other people’s writing. For most of those years, I was an editor, not a reporter.
When I did do reporting later, I certainly didn’t want to come home and write for grins an’ giggles.
Q: What inspired you to write this book?
A: The book, Songs From Richmond Avenue, took shape during a roughly eight-month period while I was drawing unemployment after a publication I worked at went belly up. I looked for work online in the morning and when that got boring, which happened pretty quickly most days, I started writing a couple of short stories based loosely on some funny things I’d witnessed riding metro buses or walking through my neighbourhood.
One morning I stuck a couple of these short stories together and decided to have them come from the voice of a single, first-person narrator. Then I decided to have the narrator go to a bar. From there, I started putting together a vague outline that ended up changing a fair amount as I went forward. Most of the inspiration comes from the amalgamation of a funky bunch of characters from Houston dive bars, using some of their exploits to invent my own stories.
Q: What made you choose the genre?
A: The genre of literary satire pretty much chose me. I’m most comfortable looking at the world as an absurd, random place to begin with. It’s an easy way to deflect bad things that happen, which are just too messed up and beyond an individual’s control to contemplate seriously for very long.
Add to that, there’s a lot of gallows humour among people who work at newspapers and some other jobs, as well – police officers, for example, where the work involves dealing with grim things all day. Not much that’s truly horrific happens in the book, but I think the narrator’s voice expresses this kind of fatalistic attitude. Basically, the narrator is a smart aleck who’d rather avert his eyes from trouble and get back to his beer. I’m comfortable with that, too.
Q: What is the book about?
A: It’s told through the eyes of a guy who hangs out with other guys in a bar called the Relix Club, where they drink and watches ballgames on TV and gamble, all to excess.
A few things have gone significantly wrong for the narrator, and he’s only recently taken a new job at a radio station. Anyway, without giving too much away, he meets Michelle at a bus stop and decides maybe he can better his life if she’s in it. The thing is she comes with a few complications of her own.
Mad-capped misadventures ensue as they used to say in old movie promos.
The thing is this movie would be less like Cary Grant meets Katherine Hepburn, and more like Mickey Rourke meets Faye Dunaway. At least the setting is. In fairness, Michelle is way, way more focused and organised than Faye Dunaway was in “Barfly.”
Q: Did you find it easiest to write with a schedule or with no time restrictions?
A: It’s best for me to have a schedule, but it’s never been an intense one. I write one night a week without fail. Sometimes, I write a little on weekends. Pressing all the time is too much like a job to me. I have a job already. I also think too much time at a keyboard stifles my imagination. I don’t want this ever to be about just pounding out words and pages.
Q: Can you choose a favourite character?
A: I probably like a couple of the peripheral characters the most, but I think they are best introduced by encountering them as you read the book, rather than me trying to explain them. I’m happiest, I think, with the woman the narrator likes, Michelle.
I originally thought I’d have the narrator traipsing around the city hoping to find her a second after their initial meeting, only to fail and never see her again in the end. Then I realised I really wanted to get rid of her early because I was scared to write dialogue for a woman as a main character and have her react to things in this setting. I didn’t want to be one of those guys who writes crappy woman characters and gives them ridiculous, air-headed dialogue.
Anyway, after reading the book, a couple of women have made a point of telling me how much they liked Michelle, how she was brave and rang true to them in this setting – no prompting from me either.
Q: Was there ever a point while you were writing your book when you wanted to give up?
A: No. But I did take an extended break at one point, primarily because I got a new newspaper job and coming home messing around with sentence structure seemed like a really unattractive use of free time. I occasionally wondered if I’d ever get back to it, but I sort of knew I would. After all, I knew all I had left to do was go back and write a pivotal middle couple of chapters that I only had an inkling of an idea about, then figure out the ending. Then, of course, edit it. I guess that was kind of a lot, but I told myself it wasn’t.
Q: What is the worst part of the writing process for you?
A: Occasionally writing myself into a corner due primarily to not having much of an outline, or deciding to stray from my original game plan because I thought of something terribly clever to include, which probably wasn’t all that clever in the first place. Oddly enough, the second worst part is writing a detailed outline to begin with.
It’s a vicious cycle for me, really.
Q: How much of your stories do you plan, or do you find it easier to make them up as you go along?
A: I tend to wing it a bit, as you’ve probably guessed by now. That was by design with Songs From Richmond Avenue. It was intended as a picaresque-type novel, basically centring on an under-achieving, know-it-all drifting from one self-created urban calamity to another without having enough sense to wonder why.
Sort of like Confederacy of Dunces or The Adventures of Augie March, only those had different settings and better writers.
In this case, a guy who has recently rediscovered his love of beer wanders around Houston, trying to get a woman he barely knows to fall for him. I did have some high points planned for the book along the way, also a couple of possible endings – neither of which I used.
Q: Do you have a favourite piece of writing advice?
A: I don’t know if it’s really advice, but I’ve gotten in the habit of taking notes when I see things or have an idea that I think might be amusing, compelling, whatever. I do so immediately, too – or at least as close to it as I can get away with.
They may not turn out to be good notes or even good ideas but at least they are legible these days because I tend to take them on my phone now rather than on the traditional scraps of paper I used to use. I used to just tell myself I’d remember my thoughts if they were good. The truth is, most of the time I didn’t.
Q: Where can people learn more about your books?
A: They can start with this interview, of course. My books are actually “my book” at this point – just the one. I’m going to say first look at my publisher Black Rose Writing’s page for the book at Black Rose Writing and information can be found on my occasionally updated Facebook page, or by Google searching the title to find some random mentions or articles.
Readers can also buy the eBook on Amazon for next to nothing, for a limited time only, as they say (hint, hint).
Q: What have you learned since you started writing?
A: That while it doesn’t seem like a lot of work while I’m doing it, it really is, and that it’s best approached, pretty much like anything else I do, with a bit of humour about myself.
Face it, other people have their own business to attend to, regardless of how highly I might regard what I’ve written. In other words, everyone isn’t going to read my book – it’s 70,000 words, that’s a lot compared to a tweet, you know.
Also, if you are new to writing and think you need an agent to be taken seriously, my experience is you don’t. If anything I did as a writer was a waste of time, it was querying agents. I guess they serve a purpose other than acting snotty, but I learned there are several indie publishers that will give your work a fair evaluation and do a good job with design, printing and, if you are really lucky like I’ve been, marketing.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: I’m working on a second book with a different setting and a third-person narrator this time. I hate the working title so I won’t mention it, but I’m maybe a third of the way through it. I’ve also got three or four short stories I’d like to turn into a book once I’ve got a few more. Then I’ve got a vague idea for a third novel and an even more vague idea for a fourth novel. I figure that should do a pretty good job of punching my dance card for a while.
Blurb: If the adage “nothing civilised ever resulted from the drinking of beer” requires further proof, one need look no farther than down Houston’s pothole-infested Richmond Avenue. There, the blurry-eyed denizens of the Relix Club wile away the hours engaged in their two favourite activities – drinking and betting.
Until recently that was good enough for our storyteller, a journalist of questionable work ethic, who undergoes an epiphany following a bus stop meeting with pretty Michelle, a woman he declares has “skin so perfect I doubted she even had pores.”
Could she be his redemption? Maybe, but first he’d better contend with her baseball bat-wielding former beau, her nihilistic stripper roommate and the suspicious death of a friend, who fancies himself the father of Brute Generation poetry.
Mostly satire, often wildly unpredictable, the only real long shot in Songs From Richmond Avenue would be for its protagonist to put down his beer long enough to learn anything of true value.