MA: My guest today is arguably one of the most interesting writers I have had the pleasure to feature on the Child Finder Trilogy blog. Michael Cogdill is blessed as one of the most honored television storytellers in America. His cache of awards includes 24 Emmys and the National Edward R. Murrow for a broad range of achievement, from live reporting to long-form storytelling. His television credits as a journalist include CNN, CNBC, MSNBC, and The Today Show, and Michael’s interview history crosses a wide horizon: The Reverend Billy Graham, Dr. Mehmet Oz of Oprah fame, Dr. Henry Kissinger, Abby Hoffman, Senator Hillary Clinton, Senator John McCain, Howard K. Smith, James Brown, Keith Lockhart of the Boston Pops, and many other newsmakers. His coverage credits include Presidents and Vice Presidents of the United States.
Michael spent ten years writing She-Rain, letting it evolve into a world of fiction drawn from his upbringing in Western North Carolina but reaching far beyond. His other writing credits are Cracker the Crab and the Sideways Afternoon – a children’s motivational book available at www.CrackerTheCrab.com, and a self-help volume, Raise the Haze. Michael makes his home in South Carolina with his wife, Jill (a children’s book publisher), and their golden retriever, Maggie. He’s currently working on his second novel and works of non-fiction as well.
Michael, I am truly honored to have you guest-blog with me. Your credentials are extensive and impressive (we’re not talking about one or two Emmys…24!), and your background in the media intrigues me. Please tell us more about that.
MC: My television career started only a few days out of my college graduation, and those who saw my early work would never have guessed the success I’ve been blessed with twenty years later. I was an angst-infused stiff with big hair, terrified eyes, and a devotion to delivering bad news in the worst possible way.
But a teacher in the sixth grade, on the heels of an unintentionally terrifying command that I stand and read a creative assignment out loud in class, cast a calming look onto my red-facedness and said, “You are going to be a writer someday.” No matter how often I failed as a television writer and performer in my early career, her belief in me, ever alive in my subconscious, stood me in the good stead of never-give-up. 24 Emmy Awards later — with a bio no one saw coming — I owe the cosmos a word of thanks on every breath I draw. Seeing what the good Lord has done in my life, where I’ve arrived from where I started, the most avowed atheist might say, “Surely, this small-town southern boy took a lift on some Almighty hand. He gives me not choice but believe in miracles.”
MA: Isn’t it fascinating how certain teachers and their encouragement stick with us throughout our lives? I, too, had a similar experience early in life which nudged me forward to my writing career. But writing is about much more than just one or two supportive comments. It’s also about life itself. Tell us how your life inspired your decision to write fiction.
MC: It began as a catharsis. My father was a violent alcoholic whose pathway to sobriety led through a black and low thicket, very near the swamp of an early grave. Only after I left at seventeen — abandoning the house of my rearing in search of a home of reliable peace — did my dad decide on living rather than soon dying. In his journey to a new way of life, I saw discipline, real faith, astounding humility and gratitude, a graceful man emerging from nearly hopeless swale. Having heard stories about my maternal grandfather’s opium addiction — which killed him early — I decided to explore the healing that seems inherent in the writing of prose. Something about writing a thing down grants the heart a harness over its tormentor. I wanted a novel, but had no great story. So I began with the telling of small stories, linking them with humanity as I knew, and imagined, we can be — at our worst and finest — letting the people of my only-child imagination lead. And to She-Rain they have shown me the way.
People ask, in no small wonder, how I arrived at so radical a love story, so wild an adventure into the deep nature of humankind. I tell them — I was raised by strong women. They helped me imagine strong women. The hands and hearts of women governed the hand of this writer to “the end.”
One more point on why the novel. Fiction celebrates the striving for beauty. I’m pretty desperately in love with trying to write a sentence that shines a warm light on the eyes of the mind. A light running to our innermost humanity, surprising us with how gracefully we can rise off the hardest times to a living art. Fitzgerald is among my heroes, his own addiction aside. A man who can write of a sea the color of blue silk stockings, a hotel the shade of roses, or a yacht in the repose of youth; anyone who could imagine the beauty and tragedy of Gatzby’s longing is an artist who must inform the work of my soul and hands. If someone finds Scott Fitzgerald’s hand, from way beyond his grave, somehow brushes the slightest touch against She-Rain, I’ll consider the book an artistic success.
She-Rain is a southern novel, compared to Cold Mountain, To Kill a Mockingbird, and the work of Pat Conroy. I’m very humbled by such company.
MA: Wow. Yours is a powerful story of life, love, challenge, faith, forgiveness and redemption. Many people look at a landscape and see a few trees, perhaps a hill, and two or three colors. But you are the kind of person who can look at the same scene and see a painting, the graceful brushstrokes of God as He continuously perfects Hs masterpiece, three-dimensional, multi-colored and with an orchestra playing in the background. You have a great gift. Your personal life obviously inspired She-Rain, but what about your professional life…any influences?
MC: Definitely. Countless figures in She-Rain take their seed from across my experience. Big Ms. Ed draws from an extraordinary woman whose stunning philanthropy I covered on television. Rev Lew grows from two radical Christian ministers — one of whom I count among my greatest friends and confidants. He can hold a sermon out over a crowd with a magnetic eloquence, letting it fall at times with jarring hilarity, right to the brink of the profanity that is his everyman vocabulary — one that draws far more people than it repels. He’s deeply learned, kind as a saint, with a lore that made some beautiful history, shaking up the church in the name of civil rights. And to those who may fear She-Rain is a religious book, I can assure you, Rev. Lew is a truly transformative figure who speaks in a language everyone can grasp.
But two women truly lead She-Rain. Mary Lizbeth, a white girl considered a nothing from nowhere, and Sophia, an African American child of scandal raised in world-altering privilege, come from so many great women I have known. They remind each of us we’re capable of a greatness reaching far beyond the walls of our times.
One more derivative from my career as a television journalist. As a news anchor, I hold human grief in my hands — on my very breath — night after night. It streams through that screen into millions of lives, overflowing too many minds with a notion of hopelessness. Human beings can live out a ruthless unkindness toward one another and themselves. You’ll see this, in some “high-def” prose, through more than one scene in She-Rain. In fact, my co-anchor said one act of violence in the book came with such vivid power off the page, she had to put the book down to rest for a moment. Yet it is, too, my experience as a journalist that we human creatures are vested with a capacity to work tremendous good into the world, and we ache to do so. We’re a compassion democracy, our majority longing to see a love prevail among us. The light of our times always outshines the dark, and I’ve had the joy of telling such stories of forgiveness, caring and seemingly boundless human greatness on television. She-Rain rose as a physical legacy I want to leave the world. It’s a tome of my desire not merely to spread around bad news as a journalist. I want to do something about it. To become a living solution of hope. In She-Rain, you’ll ultimately see humanity at some of its highest beauty as I imagine it. That imagination lives distilled and inspired by real people I’ve been blessed to know.
MA: Tell us about She-Rain’s hero.
MC: I grew him straight out of my boyhood, my father’s times as a boy who went hungry during the Depression, and my uncle, who lived with that opium-addicted grandfather I never knew. His greatest weakness is living down to the low expectations around him, steeped in fear, malice and victimhood. His strength becomes a willingness to let courageous women help break the hell out of his life. They help him turn the breakage of it into a life he never saw coming.
MA: Given the nature of She-Rain, the telling of a story about life, love, humanity, I assume all is not rosy. You must have an antagonist or two, someone who torments your main character?
MC: The single (and truly nefarious) bad guy — A.C. — emerges into a living stand of evil who comes to represent the worst of us all. The villains in She-Rain sweep across the full horizon of humankind. They remind us all to answer a calling not to be, entirely, ourselves. Yet this love story actually celebrates the best of our possibilities. Even in a love triangle, beauty can emerge in lives willing to own up to our deepest longings and live out a radical kind of love. Very topical in times of scandal surrounding governors, senators and a certain golf superstar.
MA: Very contemporary indeed, but then, aren’t the scandals of today the story of mankind itself? We exist on a planet where forces of good and evil, love and hate, forgiveness and shame all “duke it out” in ways that torture souls to seek the nourishment they need. I get the sense that She-Rain comes not just from your own personal story of your father, and the many life stories you “covered” as a journalist. What other influences are at work in the novel?
MC: The living with addiction as a child and being brought up by the hand of great women. My experience growing up during the Civil Rights movement and seeing people scarred by racism, class battle, and language-literal religious fundamentalism — all this makes a mark on She-Rain as well. She-Rain draws its breath, also, from old family stories — and a few I’ve heard from friends, including the living octagenarian minister who inspired Rev. Lew. I believe every writer draws story through the prism of someone’s experience, then casts that experience around. When you read of Rev Lew in She-Rain, for example, I pledge you’ll share my experience of unstoppable laughter. I owe that not to myself but to that man I’m blessed to know.
MA: You mentioned plans to write beyond She-Rain. What comes next?
MC: I’ve started another novel — The Belles of Honeysuckle Road — and am completing a non-fiction piece — Raise the Haze — taken from my experience covering the seismic impact of so-called ordinary people. Doing my job is a schooling in extraordinary humanity. My work as an inspirational speaker finds its way into Raise the Haze, and I hope it inspires in its audience a belief in the seismic nature of a life live far beyond its place and time. A life committed to the improvement of other lives. It’s about the legacy we see in the likes of Herb Kelleher, Richard Branson, Mother Theresa, Billy Graham — though the people I speak about are anti-celebrities. Utterly anonymous in the current media age. Yet the difference I’ve seen them make has a way of elevating an audience at the heart level. Inspiring people to live up to a hidden greatness within. It’s about leadership toward a legacy that will improve lives long after the breeze of our final breath. I’m working Raise the Haze with a terrific co-writer in London, Chris Dines — a great young man who’s a living symbol of heroic giving of the self. In a world of sometimes flimsy life coaching and prosperity theology, Chris is a breath of real hope. We don’t quite know what we’ll do with the book yet, but we’re heartened by our reviews!
MA: That’s an entirely new and different project, and one that also sounds as inspiring as She-Rain. But with so many colorful characters in She-Rain, is there any chance you will return to them and continue their stories in future books?
MC: My wife, Jill, vows I will write a sequel. When you get to the end of She-Rain, I invite you to tell me if you’d like me to fulfill this vow. I believe in being a writer deeply connected with readers. I want to hear from you. Please, get in touch. I work in television, which means it’s impossible to hurt my feelings!
MA: Michael, I have to tell you that speaking with you has been inspiring. Just getting some hints and flashes of She-Rain has been uplifting. I read the sample pages of She-Rain that you posted on your blog and found just this snippet to be engaging. There’s no doubt you have a bestseller on your hands. I invite my readers to visit Michael Cogdill’s blog for more information about him and She-Rain: http://she-rain.blogspot.com/
I’ve also done something for Michael that I’ve not done for any other author I’ve had guest with me on the Child Finder Trilogy. I’ve created a separate post dedicated to She-Rain that includes its synopsis, reviews, and more information about this special author. Please visit it here: She-Rain Dossier
Michael, thanks again for stopping by to visit with me and my readers.