welcomes as our guest, writer, author, retired teacher, musician, and artist, T. Mike Walker author of Escape from Iran: The Re-enslavement of Women and the Death of Modern Music.

Norm: Good day T. Mike and thanks for participating in our interview.

How did you get started in writing? What keeps you going?

Mike: At 17 I was living on the streets of San Francisco after graduating from High School and asked a former classmate's parents if I could rent an empty room beneath their house while I looked for a job and enrolled at San Francisco City College. They kindly said yes, and for the next year I was sheltered, fed, and educated in many ways by Jack and Tillie Olsen and their four beautiful daughters.

Every night I would hear Tillie typing upstairs long after everyone else was in bed. She had won a scholarship to Stanford's writing workshop for one of her short stories, but she worked all day as a secretary, had to feed her family and make their lunches and buy the groceries, etc., and the night hours were her only time to write.

After they had all gone to work or school the next morning, I would sneak up to the kitchen to eat a peanut butter sandwich for breakfast and would pull crumpled pieces of manuscript from the garbage can next to the table where Tillie would read and edit page after page, sometimes putting her stories through six or seven iterations before she was satisfied with a sentence. She was working on her masterpiece, “Tell Me A riddle,”, which was made into a film in the '80's.

Her careful mastery inspired me to write a story of my own “break” with my parents during my last semester in High School when they decided to abandon their restaurant (which was going broke) and move back to Aurora, IL.

I refused to accompany them, and our struggle was the focus of my short story. I asked Tillie to read it, and she was so impressed she said, “I know that you love to play music and draw pictures, but you have a real talent for writing—would you like me to introduce you to some of my teachers at San Francisco State College? They could help you find a career.” Of course, I agreed, and we drove out to the college where Tillie introduced me to Walter Van Tilberg Clark (The Ox Bo Incident). Mark Harris, Wright Morris, and other strong influences.

This was in 1962-63, when so many writers and poets were emerging from the San Francisco scene. Almost immediately I published some poems, sold a short story to one of the Playboy type magazines, and I was on my way to a writing career which has lasted over 60 years.

Norm: What do you consider to be your greatest success (or successes) so far in your careers?

T. Mike: This is hard to say. I've had several “Careers”: Writing Teacher, Visual Artist, Musician, wedding Minister, Radio Disc Jockey, President Cabrillo's Faculty Union (CFT/AFT), and non-profit grant writer. However, the publication of my first novel, Voices from the Bottom of the World: A Policeman's Journal, by Grove Press, established me as a “writer”, and it enabled me to teach Creative Writing at Cabrillo Community College for the next 30 years. Thank God for that one steady job!

However, from 1957 to the present I have been married five times, have four children from three former wives and three step children (from their mother's former husband) and now I have seven grandchildren as well.

For the past 20 years I have gone back to painting, and making collages, in addition to writing (I designed the cover of Escape from Iran, for instance). For twelve years I was Board President of the Santa Cruz Art League until I retired this year, and this month I juried my first National Political Art Show: “Spoken/Unspoken” which will show at the SC Art League in February 2018 (I also get to award $1,000 in prizes!) But personally, my latest darling is always my “favorite”, and Escape From Iran was my toughest challenge yet.

Norm: How did you become involved with the subject or theme of your novel Escape from Iran: The Re-enslavement of Women and the Death of Modern Music?

T. Mike: During the 1970's many Iranian students came to the US to study, and many of them showed up in my English 1A classes, where I got to know them and learn their stories. I was playing middle-eastern music (Bouzouki, Arabic drums, and Turkish Tsaz) at local clubs for belly-dancers, and I was interested in learning more about Persian music, dance, and culture.

The more I heard, the hungrier I grew. They introduced me to a Philosopher/Teacher who gave weekly lectures in Berkeley on Persian Poetry and Mysticism.

When I met Mostafa I was deeply impressed by the man and began studying many publications and articles he gave me.

Later, when I travelled to the East during my Sabbatical in 1974-75, I visited him in Tyre, Lebanon to help him with the English translation for his book, A Cry From the Heart (referred to in Escape from Iran).

Mostafa went on to create Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Army. The central Library in Tehran is named after him today.

Later, in the '80's, I met a musician who was stuck in Iran after the revolution and had to escape. His adventures stirred my memories and I reconnected with some of my Iranian friends and started asking questions.

By the time we finished talking, the book was already forming itself in my mind. I went home and wrote the first draft in about a month, gave it to me friends to read, took home 100's of corrections and suggestions, and wrote the 2nd draft.

It took several years and five more drafts before I felt it was ready to release—so I gave it to my friend, Terry Burke, a UCSC Middle-Eastern History Professor and asked for his response.

Terry read the book and liked it, but took off on a year long speaking tour without sharing his response.

I got depressed, thinking he disliked, and put the book aside. Then, In January of this year, I saw Terry at a local restaurant and asked him if ever read my book. He proceeded to tell me how much he liked it over the next hour and agreed to write a review for me if I went forward with self-publication. (Note: I have over twenty rejection slips from US publishers and agents who did not even want to discuss the book with me!) So he did I did and we did and here we are today with a book in our hands (and a box full in the trunk of my car—the fate of all self-published writers!)

Norm: What do you hope will be the everlasting thoughts for readers who finish your novel?

T. Mike: I hope they will feel a warm regard for the music and culture of Iran, a deep respect for the Iranian People, a better sense of their values and ideals, their struggles and dreams. Although it's been almost 40 years since the Iranian revolution, many of their goals have not been reached and well over half the country (the women!) yearn for their rights to personhood.

Yes, they can vote and even hold minor offices, a few even teach or practice medicine, but for the most part they are still repressed. Most of all, I want readers to know that Iranians are fully human beings exactly like us in more ways than we are “different”. I would love it if the book could somehow diffuse the fear and hatred the US press drums up against that ancient land and its people.

Norm: What are some of the references that you used while researching this novel?

T. Mike: Maps, history books, nearly 1,000 pages of notes, readings of Persian Poets (Hafiz, Rumi, The Persian Book of Kings (Shahnama) by A. Ferdowsi, listening to 100's of hours of Persian classical and modern music, and conversations with Iranian citizens, both in Tehran and in the USA.

Norm: What was the most difficult part of writing this book and what did you enjoy most about writing it?

T. Mike: The hardest part was getting all the spelling right for Persian words, and writing about places I haven't been to, based on descriptions of others. I also had to fact check dates, times & places as much as I could.

Norm: Did you write the novel more by logic or intuition, or some combination of the two? Please summarize your writing process of the book.

T. Mike: I wrote the book through sheer inspiration, based on several “real” stories that came together in my mind and spelled ADVENTURE! After I heard that my friend Mostafa had died, murdered with a whole cadre if revolutionary guards he was encouraging near the front lines of the Iran/Iraq war in 1983-84.

Norm: Did you know the end of your novel at the beginning?

T. Mike: Yes and No. I knew my Protagonist, Ara, would manage the escape, but I had to find a different way than the one he actually used to protect him and his accomplices. I also had to figure out how to connect Ara with Mostafa (since they never met)--this part of the book is “fiction”, even though much of it happened—just not the way portrayed.

The concept of Star-struck, ill-fated lovers came to me immediately when Kershmae meets Ara on the bus. The moment they started speaking, the story took on it's own dynamic and the characters took off running—it was all I could do to restrain them from exploding every few pages—they are so passionate about their lives, their beliefs, their struggles. I couldn't help but love them both, fools that they were!

Norm: Are the characters in your book based on people you know or have encountered or are they strictly fictional?

T. Mike: Most of the characters are based on people I knew—but not necessarily in the circumstances which appear in the book. I like Ken Kesey's statement: “It's the Truth, even if it didn't happen,” I also like my own variation: “All characters in this novel are fictitious, whether living or dead.” Since this is a work of historical fiction, it's a necessary mix of fact and imagination—always a difficult challenge.

Norm: Some people maintain that writers should write what they know. Were there any elements of the novel that forced you to step out of your comfort zone, and if so, how did you approach this part of the writing?

T. Mike: Well, I'm not Iranian. I've never lived/loved/slept with an Iranian woman. Although I've been shot at, I've never been in a raging gun battle. I've never flown in a helicopter. So there are some parts we either event or create through our imagination, I didn't “live” most parts of this book personally, but I DID speak with and listen carefully to those who have done (or did) every deed in the book, and I have rendered their impressions as faithfully as I could. I also traveled through parts of Iran and the Middle-East, including India, Afghanistan, Turkey, etc., Any errors in actual places, names, or times in the book are mine.

Norm: Do you feel that writers, regardless of genre owe something to readers, if not, why not, if so, why and what would that be?

T. Mike: Writers in all genres owe the reader enormous respect! We should be as clear as possible, as accurate as we can be, as truthful to our characters and material as humanly possible. We should also read widely in as many genres as possible. I've been a sci-fi and mystery fan since I was 10, added Westerns and Romance in High School, along with International Literature (Tolstoy, Camus, Zen Buddhism, the Upanishads, etc., and I still read widely today. Stay true to your characters. If you want to know them better, treat them badly. We reveal our true selves under adversity. Never write down to your audience! If you let your characters speak the truths of their lives in their own words, you won't go wrong.

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?

T. Mike: Fact or Fantasy, a story should stay grounded in the rules of the world being created. To deviate or twist the “facts” from what has been established is, for me, time to put down the book. How much is too much? I don't know if there is a hard fast rule here, but a seasoned reader can smell falsehood the minute it appears, and the scent soon closes the book's fate. How many books have we put aside, never to pick up again? Perhaps the flaw is in the reader, but more likely to problem is the distortion caused by “too much” (or too little) stretching of the material. On the other hand—it it's “a good story” tell it! Imagination will often carry us through

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?

Mike: All of our voices and visions matter—they come from that universal pool of human genetic material from which all stories, beings, civilizations and worlds arise! There are an infinite number of variations on any theme, as many “stories” as there are people on the earth. Our experiences and feelings are valid, and what we think and say is important precisely because we are all parts of each other, we all come from the same divine source, and each of our unique lives has meaning to the universe that created us. Of course, you have to master your craft if you want to be a good conduit of your inspiration. And no matter how fast or how furiously your material hits the page, remember—it's not ready to share with others until you have read it first yourself. If you see errors, correct them. If your readers find errors, thank them and correct the errors. It pays to employ a proof reader. But when that little voice in you says “YES!”, then go for it. If you can get an agent to work with you, listen to what they have to say. I was fortunate to have the incredible Donald Allan from Grove Press as my first book editor. He suggested dozens of changes, all of which were excellent. Editors and Agents have perspectives no beginning author can hope to have—that's why we listen to them. It's all to make our work more accessible to our readers.We have them—they're out there! We just haven't found each other yet.

Norm: Norm: How can readers find out more about you and Escape from Iran?

T. Mike: My four published books should give some sense of who I am—from policeman to teacher, wedding minister, writer, artist, musician...why set limits on yourself? You can also see many of my collages and hear me read some of my poems and a portion of Escape from Iran on You-Tube. You can also follow me on Facebook (T. Mike Walker). Don't be afraid to try new arts, new styles, new cultures and countries. Expand your interests and hone your abilities, try on new lives through your art, and deepen your compassion for others.

Norm: What is next for T. Mike Walker?

T. Mike: I have two more novels to complete—one called Song of Sheba, the romance between Queen Makeda of Ethiopia and King Solomon of Judah.

The story is told from Makeda's point of view, and it's a spicy and irreverent compendium of Coptic and Israeli myths, woven from both Ethiopian and Old Testament Bibles.

Queen Makeda is one feisty lady, black and beautiful and on a mission for her Country, Witty and quick, she's a match for King Sol—and the Great Game Begins!. (There is also a Book 2, Son of Solomon, waiting in the wings, connecting Solomon with the Ethiopian King line from Menalach Ito Hailie Selassie.) Beyond that? Mysteries surround me, voices call to me in the night, a fluttering stack of unwritten stories and poems haunt me in the early dawn. I've never run out of material or things to do.

Norm: As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer.  

T. Mike: What inspires you? Because writing is hard work, Most of mine was done on manual typewriters before they were electrified, then plugged into our brains.

Once I wished I didn't have to put in a new sheet of paper when I reached the end of a page, now I stack a ream of blanks in my printer and it lays them out for me numbered (In fact, now we don't need to have paper at all to enjoy a book; I read at least one e-book a week for pleasure in between hard cover.

Reading is also a great source of inspiration to me! As is Music, both creating it (mostly piano these days), or listening to it. I often have music on (jazz or classical) in the background to screen out noise while I'm writing—but not music with words in a language I know. Words & lyrics interrupt my thoughts and make it hard to hear the voices in my head. No, I'm not crazy—I'm a writer, and it comes from the inside out. Knowing that we've connected with even one other person can make our day.

Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors