Wednesday, February 11, 2015

An interview with the authors of the We Are Still Tornadoes

Full disclosure: I met Michael Kun around the time The Locklear Letters was published so I'm guessing that was Spring 2003. We were both at Book Expo and his publisher at the time, MacAdam Cage, threw a reception on the show floor which meant there would be drinks. Mike and I hit it off right away and he turned me on to a couple of his fellow MacAdam Cage authors like Mark Dunn, Amanda Eyre Ward and Craig Clevenger. We stayed in touch.

Not long afterward, Mike approached me about a sports book that he was co-authoring that was irreverent but written from a knowledgeable fan's perspective. It hit all the right marks and the small house I was with at the time published The Baseball Uncyclopedia, a book we did well enough with that we published a follow up, The Football Uncyclopedia. We stayed in touch.

Recently, Mike was kind enough to ask me to read his latest work, an epistolary novel titled We Are Still Tornadoes, co-written by first-time author Susan Mullen. Set in the early 1980's, it features the correspondence between two high school friends, Cath, who is beginning her freshman year at college, and Scott who has stayed in their hometown and is reluctantly helping to run his father's clothing store. It is sweet and insightful, funny and surprisingly touching. (It's also peppered with some great '80's music references and that's always a plus in my book.) Full disclosure: I think it's terrific and deserves to be read, far and wide. 

The book is being shopped to publishers but I wanted to do my little bit. In an effort to help spread the word, they were kind enough to agree to submit to (or shall I say commandeer) the following interview. Like the characters in the book, it is obvious they write with genuine chemistry and great affection. 

  1. Mike, you have written two epistolary novels before, The Locklear Letters and its sequel, Everybody Says Hello as well as novels in traditional formats. What is it about the epistolary format that you like so much?

Mike: I enjoy using the device for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I was an avid letter-writer when I was younger, so it comes naturally to me. Letters not only allow you to give the character a very distinct voice, but what the character shares and how he or she chooses to share it can tell you more about a character than traditional prose might. How much does the letter-writer share with the person he or she is writing to? What is their relationship? How does the letter-writer feel about that person? What response does the letter-writer want from that other person? I’d like to think that by the third or fourth letter in Tornadoes, readers will already understand that Scott and Cath have a unique friendship, and it’s one that we might not have been able to convey as well had we written the novel in a traditional format.

If you don’t mind me adding something, I’m concerned that the epistolary novel will disappear soon. No one writes letter anymore. The friendship that Susan and I have was developed in no small part from the letters we used to write each other when we were young. And Susan’s letters were lovely and funny. She’s the only person who’s ever written me letters with drawings of her latest haircuts. But, Susan, when is the last time you and I exchanged letters? Not emails, but letters?

Susan: Twenty-five years ago?

Mike: See, that’s my point. I’ve missed 25 years of new haircut drawings because people don’t write letters anymore. It’s all emails and texts, and who wants to read a book that’s all emails and texts? By the third “LOL,” I’d put the book down.

Susan: Which is why we set our book in the 1980s.

Mike: Right. That, and because Susan wanted to drop in a few references to Elvis Costello and the Smiths.

Susan: That was you.

Mike: You can’t prove that.

Susan: I have the working drafts of the book.

Mike: Oh, well, then I suppose you can prove that.   

  1. Susan, are you new to being an author? How did you and Mike join forces?

Susan: Yes, this is my first time writing fiction. Mike and I met in law school and bonded over literature and writing. I had been an English major at Duke, and he was fresh out of the writing program at Johns Hopkins. When I learned that, I asked to see his stories. He eventually showed a few to me and I, of course, was genuinely impressed and encouraged him to keep writing and keep trying to get his stories published. He’s a beautifully gifted writer. Over 25 years or so, with busy careers and families, we’d sort of lost touch, until Mike called me a few years ago and said something like, “Hey, we used to swap some pretty funny letters. Do you have any interest in trying to write a book together?” I think you know how I responded.

Mike: This isn’t the first time Susan has written fiction. Maybe she’s forgotten about it, but I encouraged her to start writing when we were younger, and she wrote a short story about a family playing cards in the car on a family trip. It was pretty good for a first crack at writing. I still have that story.

Susan: I forgot about that. Can you send it to me?

Mike: How much are you willing to pay me for it?

Susan: I have to pay?

Mike: It’s a one-of-a-kind. Make an offer.

Susan: Five bucks.

Mike: You’re nuts.

Susan: Ten.

Mike: You’re wasting my time.

Susan: I’ll send you some chocolate chip cookies.

Mike: You think that will work?

Susan: Yes.

Mike: Fine, it’s a deal.

  1. Susan, was it at all intimidating to work with an experienced author?

Susan: Yes and no. “Yes” in that I really didn’t want to waste Mike’s time. Mike adores his wife and daughter, is a very successful partner at a large law firm, and is likewise a very successful author. In other words, his time is quite valuable. I was conscious of the fact that he could be spending the time that he was spending on our book in many other productive ways. If I felt pressure during the writing process at all, it was out of my own respect for Mike and my desire to write something worthy of the time and effort that he was putting into it. And “no,” it wasn’t intimidating working with Mike because he and I have been friends for a long time, we communicate well, he’s tremendously kind and supportive, and he did everything he could to welcome me to the writing life, rather than to intimidate me about it.

Mike: I’m sorry you were concerned about wasting my time, but I never felt like you wasted a second of it. It was an absolute pleasure from the very start.

Susan: Are you trying to get more cookies out of me?

Mike: Is it working?

Susan: Maybe.

  1. Tell me about the writing process. Did you write this like the characters, one letter by Mike then answered by Susan and so on? Did you begin with an outline of where the story would go? Did you ever just riff on a letter to see where it would take the story?

Susan: Primarily, we wrote it by swapping letters. We talked at the outset about the framework of the book and the characters, how it would take place over the course of one school year when Cath was a freshman in college and Scott was at home working in his dad’s clothing store. We had some key events that we wanted to hit, and a general idea of how the book would end – which we eventually scrapped – and then we just started writing. Mike would write a draft letter from Scott, I’d send back my proposed edits and additions, then I would add a draft letter from Cath. Mike would send back his proposed edits and additions, then send the next draft letter from Scott. There were times that we talked on the phone to sketch out ideas or storylines, but usually we communicated with emails. It was a really enjoyable process.

Mike: It was an enjoyable process, although we both have lives outside of the book that sometimes caused delays in getting back to each other. I know there were a few weeks here or there where I owed Susan a response and didn’t get back to her, and vice versa.

Susan: I’ll admit that I’d worry that he didn’t like something I’d written if I didn’t hear back in a day or two.

Mike: And I’d apologize. But it worked the other way, too. Susan would get tied up with something else and I’d grow a little concerned that she hadn’t liked something I’d written or some new direction I’d take the story that maybe I hadn’t discussed with her.

Susan: Maybe?

Mike: Well, there was at least one major plot point that I knew I wanted to write about but didn’t mention to Susan in advance only because I didn’t want the letters she was preparing to anticipate it. I wanted her, Cath and the reader to get hit with it at the same time, just like you would if you got a letter from a friend describing some event in their life that you hadn’t heard about before. And, to be candid, Susan would do the same, which was exactly what I hoped she would do. I would learn about things that were going on in Cath’s life at the same time as Scott and the reader.

Susan: It worked out well.

Mike: Damn straight it worked out well.

Susan: One of our early readers, a person I don’t know, paid us a great compliment, saying that the two characters have very different voices, but seem to have come from the same author. I enjoyed hearing that because it’s what we were aiming for. A coherent novel with two different voices.  

  1. Did you write in sequence or did you work on certain scenarios and then go back and bridge them together?

Susan: We generally wrote in sequence, editing it at every step along the way, and then went back and edited it all at the end.

Mike: We also did a major edit midway through when we came up with the idea that gives the book its title.

Susan: That’s right. I sometimes forget that we were calling it Tell Me Something I Don’t Know for a long time.

Mike: That was just a working title. It was from a short story I started 20 years ago but never finished.

Susan: My daughter informed me that it’s also the title of a Selena Gomez song.

Mike: Are you suggesting Selena Gomez read a draft of a short story I wrote 20 years ago and stole the title?

Susan: Maybe I am, maybe I’m not.

Mike: Was she even alive 20 years ago?

Susan: I think so. Anyway, We Are Still Tornadoes is a much better title.

Mike: Agreed. And if Selena Gomez should stumble upon this interview, all I have to say is, “Hands off that title!”

Susan: Right, that one’s our title!

  1. You live on opposite coasts, Susan on the East and Mike on the West. Were you ever together during the writing process?

Susan: I think we saw each other four times during the writing process. My husband and I attended a 50th birthday party that Mike’s wife threw for him in Baltimore. I had dinner with Mike’s family while I was in Los Angeles for a graduation ceremony. Mike spent a few hours with me and my family after his law firm partners’ meeting in Virginia. And my husband and I attended a Nationals baseball game with Mike and some of his Baltimore friends last summer. Each time we meant to talk about the book, and each time we ended up spending maybe 10 minutes on the book.

Mike: I think we spent a couple hours going through the book when I came to your home in Virginia, didn’t we?

Susan: Oh, yeah, that’s right. But it wasn’t our home, it was a house we were renting while we were having work done on our house.

Mike: Admit it, the whole thing was a ruse to keep me from visiting your home.

Susan: Right, we rented another house just so you couldn’t come to our house and go through our bookshelves to see what books we’ve been reading.

Mike: I’d only go through your bookshelves to see if you have any of my books up there.

Susan: I knew you were going to say that. You know we have your books on our bookshelf.

Mike: Even the bad one?

Susan: I’m going to pretend that I don’t know which one you’re talking about.

Mike: But you know which one I’m talking about, don’t you?

Susan: No comment.

Mike: Just make room on your bookshelf for Tornadoes, okay?

Susan: Of course.

Mike: Can I come see it then?

Susan: I think we’re having work done on the house then.

Mike: You don’t even know when that will be.

Susan: Is there another question?

  1. Sort of spoiler alert: there is a death in the novel that is important to the story. It is handled with tremendous grace and economy; the weight of it is felt deeply but the writing about it is only a few pages. Can you talk about writing that without giving too much away?

Susan: There’s a death in the book?

Mike: There is? In our book?

Susan: He wouldn’t have asked the question if there weren’t.

Mike: Do we want to talk about it?

Susan: I don’t.

Mike: I don’t, either. But, hypothetically, if there were a death in the book, what would we say about it?

Susan: Hypothetically, we’d say we’ve both lost family members, and we each tried to tap into those thoughts and emotions while writing those letters.

Mike: Yeah, that sounds like what we would say. Hypothetically.

  1. Mike, you’ve co-authored at least two books that I’m aware of before. Is it very different writing fiction this way? How is it different than writing fiction by yourself?

Mike: It is very different. With those non-fiction books – The Baseball Uncyclopedia, The Football Uncyclopedia, and The Movie Uncyclopedia – we each wrote our own sections which were then attributed just to that author, and the books were supposed to have a disjointed feel to them, like an encyclopedia would, where one subject doesn’t necessarily relate to the subject it follows. And, of course, there was no plot that had to be created, and no characters to be developed. Those books literally start at letter A and end at letter Z. Fiction is different in that there has to be a plot, there have to be characters that develop, and it all has to come together.

Writing fiction is normally a solitary endeavor. Sure, you can bounce ideas off people from time to time, or share a chapter or two, but ultimately you’re writing it alone. While there was some collaboration in the non-fiction books, and while there were hundreds of phone calls and emails exchanged, writing fiction with another writer is very different because it really has to be a collaboration. You have to trust each other and be able to work together. You need to agree on the plot, the characters, everything, and if you don’t agree, you’d better figure out a way to work it out or else the whole project could fall apart in a second. If there’s something I want a character to say in one of my solo novels, he’ll just say it. It’s that easy. But if there were something I wanted a character to say in Tornadoes and Susan disagreed, or vice versa, what were we going to do, go to an arbitrator? Decide it by playing “rock, paper, scissors”?

Susan: We could decide it by playing a tennis match.

Mike: That’s not fair. You’d beat me.

Susan: Or by a race.

Mike: Same result. Ultimately, though, it never came to that, not once. We talked everything through. We never came anywhere close to needing an arbitrator.

  1. Susan, as a first-time author, was the experience at all what you thought writing a book would be like.

Susan: No. In thinking about writing in the past, I was very intimidated by the scope of a potential project. This was a great first project in that our process demanded only one letter at a time. I put a lot of thought and effort into each letter, but the process didn’t overwhelm me, which was important because I’m a working mom. Also, the writing was more satisfying than I would have expected. I couldn’t wait to get the next draft letter from Mike or his comments on the most recent letter I’d drafted, and then I would be challenged to think on several levels about how to respond. How would Cath realistically respond? How to write it in a way that would be interesting to the reader? How to keep the story going? How to set up a potentially interesting response from Scott? It was very fun and challenging.

Mike: Susan’s a very good writer. I’m glad people are going to see that.

Susan: Thanks.

Mike: I told you that almost 30 years ago.

Susan: You also told me you were a decent tennis player.

Mike: Is there another question?

  1. What’s next for We Are Still Tornadoes?

Susan: Mike, why don’t you answer that one?

Mike: We’ve gotten a lot of great reads on the manuscript and it’s off to a couple publishers. It will go off to more shortly. We already have some interest in developing a movie or TV series based on Tornadoes, which is fun to think about. We’re trying not to get too excited about it because, well, I live in Los Angeles, and I know how cheap talk is in this town. Every idea is being developed by someone for a movie or a TV show. The percentage that pan out is tiny. If I had a dime for every time I thought there would be a Locklear Letters movie . . . .

Susan: How much would you have?

Mike: What?

Susan: If you had a dime for each time, how much would you have?

Mike: I don’t know, 70 or 80 cents.

Susan: It might make more sense if you said, “If I had a million dollars for each time.”

Mike: I’ll remember that.

Susan: Are we allowed to say that you and I are going to try our hands at writing a script for a TV pilot?

Mike: I think you just did.

Susan: And I’m going to try to talk Mike into writing a sequel to Tornadoes.

Mike: And I will quote from Apollo Creed at the end of Rocky: “There ain’t gonna be no rematch.”

Susan: But they ended up having a rematch, didn’t they?

  1. What’s next for each of you? What are you working on?

Susan: Truly what’s next for me are two graduations this Spring. My older daughter is graduating from college and is heading to China to pursue a graduate degree next year, and my younger daughter is graduating from high school and heading off to college, location TBD. I have started writing a new novel, but it is in the very preliminary planning stages. Nothing I couldn’t set aside to spend time on a Tornadoes’ pilot or sequel!

Mike: I just finished a draft of a very personal, non-fiction book called Nobody Dies, which I posted in installments on Facebook, of all places. It’s about how my sister and I survived a boating accident during a storm on a lake when we were kids, how we kept each other from drowning, and how our lives ended up going in entirely different directions afterward. I’ll be polishing it up at some point and taking it to publishers. I’m also getting back to a novel I’ve been working on called The Allergic Boy versus The Left-Handed Girl. And I’ll be spending too much time at The American Girl Store and Disneyland with my wife and daughter.

Susan: You need to let me read more of The Allergic Boy.

Mike: And you need to let me read some of the new book you’re working on. Deal?

Susan: Deal.

12. Can you recommend any favorite epistolary novels?

Susan: Aside from Mike’s prior epistolary novels, my favorites are The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer, and Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn.

Mike: Hey, I’m the one who told you about Ella Minnow Pea.

Susan: I know.

Mike: Ella Minnow Pea’s one of my favorites. It was written by my friend Mark Dunn. Great guy. I also loved Ring Lardner’s You Know Me, Al. In fact, I was tempted to call my first epistolary novel You Know Me, Heather as a tribute before deciding on The Locklear Letters.

Susan: I didn’t know that.

Mike: Because I didn’t tell you.

Susan: You could have put it in a letter to me, you know.

Mike: Excellent point.

How's that for full disclosure? 

I will keep you posted on the progress of We Are Still Tornadoes but make a note and add this to your future reading list.