Bookpleasures.com welcomes as our guest Michael Kahn, award-winning author of eight Rachel Gold novels, a stand-alone novel, The Mourning Sexton (under the pen name Michael Baron), and his new stand-alone novel, The Sirena Quest, as well as several short stories.
Michael is a trial lawyer by day and a writer by night. He was as former elementary school teacher in the Chicago Public Schools. On a challenge from his wife Margi, he wrote his first novel, Grave Designs. Margi had grown tired of listening to the same answer when she asked him about a book he was reading. “Not bad,” he would say, “but I could write a better book than that.” At the time he wrote his first mystery novel, it was just that. A novel. And then his agent called to tell him that she had an offer from a publisher for the next two books in the series. “What series?” Mike asked. “A mystery series,” she said. “Rachel Gold, Benny, Rachel’s mom. You can’t just walk away from those characters. We need to see more of them.”
In addition to his day job, where he represents individuals and companies in the fields of creative arts and media law, Mike is an adjunct professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis, where he teaches a class on censorship and free expression.
Mike married his high school sweetheart. They are the parents of five and the grandparents of, so far, five. His happiest moment as a writer: having his kids take one of his books to school for show-and-tell.
Norm: Good day Michael and thanks for participating in our interview.
What has been the best part about being published?
Michael: As you mentioned above, Norm, the best part was back when my kids were in elementary school and could take my latest book to Show ‘n Tell. When your day job is being a lawyer, your Show ‘n Tell offerings for your kids are a less-than-enticing array of interrogatories, deposition transcripts, and motions to compel production of documents. Thus an actual book by their dad, albeit one without pictures, was more appealing than his latest summary judgment motion. Now that I have grandkids, I’m looking forward again to Show ‘n Tell!
Norm: How has your environment/upbringing colored your writing?
Michael: The most obvious parallels are the law, Judaism, and St. Louis. I’m a Jewish lawyer who practices in St. Louis. Rachel Gold is a Jewish lawyer who practices in St. Louis, as are the main characters in my new novel, The Sirena Quest, and in The Mourning Sexton. Other parallels are harder for me to identify. For example, none of my lawsuits or clients or opponents or judges have found their way into my novels—at least not knowingly. As with most writers, the biggest impact on my writing has been a lifetime of reading. My list of favorite authors runs the gamut from Jane Austen to Raymond Chandler to Herman Melville to Cormac McCarthy to Miguel de Cervantes to James Lee Burke. I’m sure each has—in some way I’ll never grasp—colored my writing.
Norm: Do you work from an outline and how do you stay focused?
Michael: The spectrum of writers runs from plotters (who meticulously outline every scene) to pantsers (who compose by the seat of their pants). I’m somewhere in the middle. I start with an idea, an opening scene, and a place where I hope to end up, and then I start writing. I try to maintain some control over the characters and the direction of the novel by keeping an ongoing outline, which usually is a few chapters ahead of where I am in the manuscript. So if I’m writing Chapter 5, I will have an outline that has a sentence or two summary of Chapters 6, 7, and maybe 8. By the time I reach Chapter 8, I’ll have added another two or three future chapters to that outline.
In writing my first novel, Grave Designs, I learned the importance of knowing where you want to end up. I had my idea: a senior partner in a major law firm dies, and his partners and family are baffled to discover a secret codicil setting up a trust fund for the maintenance of a grave at a pet cemetery. The problem: no one in the family ever owned a pet or has any idea of what’s in the grave, which will be robbed by Chapter 2. And I had my protagonist: Rachel Gold, a savvy and tough former associate at the law firm that the firm retains to figure out what was in the grave. But I started writing the novel with no idea of what had been in that grave. By the time I finally figured that out—around page 200 of the manuscript—I had to go back to page 1 and rewrite the entire manuscript. Thus my lesson for all new authors: figure out what’s in that grave before you type “Chapter One.”
Norm: Does your writing career ever conflict with your career as an attorney?
Michael: Oddly enough, there’s been no conflict. None of my lawsuits have found their way into my novels—and the legal problems my characters confront are ones I’ve never had to deal with. I used to be concerned that during a trial an opponent might “remind” the jury that I write fiction, but that’s never happened. If it ever does, my answer will be that I have learned how to tell the difference between fact and fiction.
Norm: What do you want your work to do? Amuse people? Provoke thinking?
Michael: Great question. At a book event years ago, a grumpy old man asked me why a respectable lawyer, husband, and father would want to waste valuable time writing make-believe stories about make-believe people. I mulled over that question for a long time, and here’s my best answer: What is the appeal of any art form—of song or dance or painting or poetry or storytelling? We loved doing them as children, we loved experiencing them as children, and most of us still love experiencing them. Why? Because art offers us a vision of beauty and coherence and resolution in a world that often seems ugly and incoherent and unresolved. So I suppose I want my books to amuse my readers, to provide them with a sense of closure, and to get them thinking about the issues my characters had to confront.
Norm: How long does it take you to write a book?
Michael: Depends. Once I
have my idea, my characters, and my end point, it usually takes about
nine months to write the manuscript. But sometime I will fiddle with
a book, set it aside, return to it a month or a year later, fiddle
some more, set it aside, and maybe return. That happened with new
novel, The Sirena Quest, which I have been fiddling with off and on
for a decade.
I try to reassure struggling writers that even our greatest writers were not immune to writer’s block. Mark Twain started writing Huckleberry Finn at a remarkable pace, and by the end of six months he’d reached the end of Chapter 16, which is where a steamboat bursts out of the fog and cuts the raft in two, separating Huck and Jim. The scene separated more than Huck and Jim. Twain couldn’t continue. He tried to, but he was totally blocked. Demoralized, he put the unfinished manuscript into a desk drawer and left it there for nearly six years before he found the inspiration to finish the novel.
Norm: Where do you get your information or ideas for your books?
Michael: I have no clue where I get my ideas, Norm. They seem to float into my brain from some unknown location. Once I have the idea, though, I need to do research. For example, my most recent Rachel Gold mystery, Face Value, features a law firm mailroom clerk named Stanley Plotkin who suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome and, to compensate for his inability to read facial expressions, has become obsessed with the Facial Action Coding System (“FACS”). I know no one with Asperger’s and knew little about FACS beyond an article I’d read of its use by the FBI in interrogations. Thus I had to do a lot of research to make Stanley come alive and to make sure his use of FACS was accurate. Of course, the real challenge in blending your research into your novel is to know when enough is enough. As Elmore Leonard famously wrote in his 10 Rules for Writing, “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.”
Norm: What's the most difficult thing for you about being a writer?
Michael: All those hours alone—just you and your computer. For me, at least, it’s more fun to play a game of touch football with friends or attend a concert or go on a hike with my wife or hang out with my kids. It’s why I envy musicians. How much more fun would it be to practice your art by playing drums in a rock band or cello in an orchestra? Authors, like painters, practice their art alone.
Norm: What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?
Michael: I learned that characters can take on a life of their own and surprise you in the process. It certainly happened to William Shakespeare with Falstaff in the Henry IV plays. Indeed, I’m convinced that those two plays were originally planned as one until Falstaff entered, stage left, and took charge. I have my own version of Falstaff in my Rachel Gold series: Benny Goldberg. Fat, crude, brilliant, and hilarious, he is Rachel’s best friend. And he most certainly has a life of his own. My wife poked her head into the den late one night while I was writing one of my novels. “What’s so funny?” she asked. Chuckling, I turned to her with a big grin. “You won’t believe what Benny just said.” She gave me an odd look, said goodnight, and backed slowly out of the room
Norm: In fiction as well as in non-fiction, writers very often take liberties with their material to tell a good story or make a point. But how much is too much?
Michael: The old saying
about truth being stranger than fiction most definitely applies to
novels. Crazy things happen in real life—amazing coincidences,
unexpected acts of heroism by ordinary people, and other events of
pure happenstance. Those same things can’t happen, at least in any
obvious way, in a novel or the reader will just roll her eyes and
close the book.
The great secret among writers, however, is that we need coincidences. The key is to disguise them so that the reader doesn’t see the strings on our marionettes. Indeed, every great work of literature—by Shakespeare, by Dickens, by Tolstoy—is built upon a carefully constructed latticework of coincidence. Think of the improbable series of events that have to occur in The Great Gatsby to get Jay Gatsby fatally shot in his swimming pool. Diagram the plot devices in that novel and you’ll roll your eyes. But Fitzgerald brilliantly disguises each of them
Norm: What would you like to say to writers who are reading this interview and wondering if they can keep creating, if they are good enough, if their voices and visions matter enough to share?
Michael: Keep at it. And think small. Rome was not built in a day, and the same is true for your novel. Set aside a half hour each day and try to write one page. At that pace, you can write a novel in a year. Lower your goal to a half-page and you’ll still have a novel in two years. Some of those days, the half hour will expand to two hours and you discover that you’ve written five pages. But other days you’ll write and rewrite and rewrite that same paragraph and then delete it at the end of the day. Don’t worry. It happens to all of us.
Norm: Can you share a little of your current work, The Sirena Quest with us?
Michael: Happy to. In
Hollywood terms, my new novel is a Baby Boomer version of The Big
Chill meets The Maltese Falcon. The time is 1994. Our four
protagonists were freshmen roommates back in 1970 at Barrett College,
a small New England liberal arts college. Even back then, the
whereabouts of Sirena, the college’s legendary Greco-Roman
sculpture, was a hot topic. She’d disappeared under mysterious
circumstances in 1959.
But one month ago a hedge-fund billionaire from the Class of ’59 announced a challenge: he will establish a $25 million endowment fund, plus a $3 million reward to her finders, if Sirena returns to the college by June 17th, which is the date of his 35th reunion, the college’s sesquicentennial celebration, and our foursome’s 20th reunion. Our four men had drifted apart after graduation twenty ago. They’d planned on finally getting back together for their college reunion, but then one of them stumbles across an obscure but intriguing clue that might—just might—lead to Sirena’s whereabouts. And that sets our foursome off on their quest.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and your books?
Norm: As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer.
Michael: Hmm . . . okay: Question: Mike, you’re a lawyer, a law school professor, and a published author. Which of those three occupations comes closest to your dream job? Answer: None of them, Norm. My dream job, alas, was to play third base for the St. Louis Cardinals. Kenny Boyer was my hero growing up. Not to say I wasn’t’ a big fan of Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, and the rest of those great teams of the 1960s, but Kenny Boyer had a special place in my heart and childhood dreams.
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors
Michael: Thanks, Norm. It’s been a pleasure.