My guest today is Margie Church, AKA Churchlady, author of romance/thriller novels with “SASS.” She tells me that stands for Suspense, Angst, Seductive Sizzle. Margie is a married mom of two children, and a Minnesota native. He writing career began early when she published in “McCall’s Magazine” in the sixth grade. Margie describes her professions as a mother and author whose guilty pleasures are great beer, real vanilla ice cream, and lobster. I couldn’t agree more with that list! Read More
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MA: My guest today is Alan Simon, the author or co-author of 30 books dating back to the early 1980s. His writing career began with the 1st edition of How to be A Successful Computer Consultant (McGraw-Hill) that sold approximately 200,000 copies in 4 editions over the next 15 years. He is the author of three titles in the “For Dummies” franchise series and has written extensively about technology and business topics. In 2009 Alan began experimenting in self-publishing with Blocking and Tackling Your Way to Management Success in which he set 40 fundamental management lessons against a backdrop of 40 stories from the history of his hometown Pittsburgh Steelers. In 2010, Alan branched out into fiction with the publication of his first two novels including The First Christmas of the War, set at Christmastime, 1941 – only weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Alan currently lives in Phoenix and in the past has lived in Pittsburgh, Tucson, Colorado Springs, Denver, and northeastern Pennsylvania.
Please tell me a little bit about your professional or personal background…the prequel if you would to your writing career.
AS: The best way to describe my professional background is to quote The Beatles: “The long and winding road…” I grew up in Pittsburgh, PA until my family moved to Tucson, Arizona just before my 16th birthday. I attended college at Arizona State in Tempe and then went to graduate school at the University of Arizona back in Tucson before heading off to Colorado Springs where I spent four years as a U.S. Air Force officer stationed at Cheyenne Mountain. In the Air Force I wrote software for one of the real-life “War Games” systems, referring to the early 1980s movie in which Matthew Broderick breaks into Cheyenne Mountain’s computers to play “thermonuclear war.” After my Air Force days I worked for a series of technology and consulting companies in a variety of roles, including several as a national or global practice leader in business intelligence and data warehousing. I began my own firm – currently called Thinking Helmet, Inc. – in 2006.
In many ways my writing career began as an “accident.” When I was an Air Force officer in the early 1980s I started a small computer consulting business on the side mostly so I could stay up to date with the technology of the then-brand new “microcomputers” that were very different than the old-fashioned mainframes we used in the Air Force. One day I was thinking about all of the tasks I had to do to set up my company and learn about new technology and suddenly thought there might be a book in the making there. I wrote a proposal, sent it off to McGraw-Hill, and presto! Book deal! (Little did I know the publishing game wasn’t quite that easy…)
MA: Well, I definitely have a soft spot for fellow Air Force vets, and I am very familiar with Cheyenne Mountain during my work in Air Force Space Command nearby. With such a technical and non-fiction writing background, how did you end up writing fiction?
AS: I began “dabbling” in fiction approximately 25 years ago, sequestered in a near-deserted hotel in the mountains of Colorado in late May of 1985. I had gone there to spend a week finishing up the final manuscript for my first book, How to be a Successful Computer Consultant. (Thinking back, my long-ago writing getaway in the Rockies was sort of a combination of two works from one of my favorite authors, Stephen King: “The Shining” meets “Misery” !)
Whenever I’d take a break from polishing that manuscript during that trip, I’d shift to write two or three more draft pages for an idea I had for a “potboiler” novel; something that in retrospect was heavily influenced by the writing style and typical plot lines from popular writers of the day such as Harold Robbins and Sidney Sheldon. I shelved that book for all eternity shortly thereafter, but over the next two decades spent thousands of hours – and wrote the proverbial million words of fiction – on any number of long-dormant projects, as fiction writing grew into a deep passion of mine.
MA: Speaking of The Shining, my kids and I once spent a night in the “Stephen King” room at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, where King stayed and wrote the book. Sadly, nothing spooky happened during our stay there. So tell us about your novels.
AS: I wrote two novels in parallel with each other over a period of 6+ years; both were self-published this past year. The first is entitled The First Christmas of the War and is a family saga set at Christmastime, 1941…only weeks after Pearl Harbor. Beyond the overarching and terrifying news coming back from the war front, each family member has his or her own “mini-drama” going on, and the story interweaves the “macro” and “micro” plots in a day-by-day format beginning with the Saturday before Christmas and ending the day after Christmas.
The other novel is entitled Unfinished Business and just like The First Christmas of the War, it’s set in my hometown of Pittsburgh. I like to think of Unfinished Business as “a darker Bridges of Madison County story” that begins in flashback with a brief wartime affair that takes place in 1942. The plot of the story is based around the resumption of that affair nine years later, in 1951, when Roseanne DeMarco’s steelworker husband is called up from the Army Reserves and set off to the Korean War…just as her long-ago “friend” reappears in Pittsburgh as she’s struggling to make ends meet.
MA: I have a hard enough time writing one story, so I can’t imagine what two parallel ones must be like. Who are your protagonists?
AS: In The First Christmas of the War I’m fortunate enough to have a number of main characters who essentially are an “ensemble cast” as the book’s protagonist. The family’s patriarch – Gerald Coleman – is patterned after one of my grandfathers. He’s a shoemaker who is fortunate enough to have made a decent enough living during the Depression. His wife, Irene Coleman, is the classic homemaker of the day…she runs her household and her family and is always looking out for the best interests of every family member. The eldest son, Jonathan, is patterned after characters such as those played by Sean Penn and Nicholas Cage in the 1980s movie Racing with the Moon…he knows with certainty he’s headed off to war soon and is trying to come to grips with this sudden reality. The rest of the family members are all “demographically appropriate” for 1941 children and teenagers.
In Unfinished Business I tried my best to get inside the head of Roseanne DeMarco. Her husband is suddenly sent off to war, she has no safety net to fall back on, and in general she’s sleepwalking through life…and here comes this person from the past who was her “partner” in an illicit yet exciting brief period of her young life. Throughout the book she’s conflicted between the renewal of this excitement and her increasing guilt about what she’s doing while her husband is away at war.
MA: They both sound interesting. Who are the antagonists in the stories?
AS: The First Christmas of the War doesn’t have an antagonist…unless you want to think of Hitler and Tojo as off-the-pages antagonists who made the story (and the war) possible!
In Unfinished Business Frank Donaldson – the main with whom Roseanne DeMarco renews her affair – is very much an antagonist, but a carefully constructed one. I patterned his character after that of Noel Airman in Herman Wouk’s 1955 novel, Marjorie Morningstar. At first he seems suave, debonair, the man of Roseanne DeMarco’s dreams who has returned to her…but increasingly his fascination in the story with Jack Kerouac (then a brand new novelist) becomes symbolic of his own character flaws.
MA: How much of your real life’s story influenced your writing?
AS: When I moved from Pittsburgh to Tucson just before my 16th birthday, I was very homesick for my original city and spent many hours in the high school and public libraries reading books about Pittsburgh and its history. Since I planned to go into the military in one way or another, I was also very interested in the World War II era and the aftermath, including the boom years of the 1950s. So my fascination with mid-20th century Pittsburgh formed the foundation for both of these novels. I spent many hours researching the facts and tidbits for both stories, though when appropriate I took a bit of poetic license in the interest of moving the story along.
In both books – especially The First Christmas of the War – I did use my real-life great-grandfather’s produce business in Pittsburgh as a plot vehicle, and in First Christmas had eldest son Jonathan working side-by-side with my real-life great-uncles in a couple of scenes. I dedicated that book to those great-uncles, all of them gone now, as members of the “greatest generation” who (to use the words of the book’s dedication) “sacrificed much of their youth to the Second World War.”
MA: So what’s next for you? You are so versatile, I can imagine either a novel or some techno-geek book coming soon!
MA: The biggest challenge I have is getting my head and hands around a much-too-full list of to-be-written projects for 2011. In all seriousness, I have a list of about 15 business, technology and management topics; 25-30 ideas for novels and short stories; and another non-fiction, self-help oriented title based on my own personal close call on 9/11. (A schedule quirk put me in Pittsburgh for a speech that morning, scheduled to fly to San Francisco from there that afternoon; otherwise I almost certainly would have been on United Flight 93 since I was shuttling between projects and proposals in New Jersey and the San Francisco bay area for the consulting company I worked for then.)
MA: Wow! I’m glad you missed the original flight, and it’s nice to hear you plan to turn that experience into something good that may help others. With regard to fiction, would any of your future writing involve characters from your first two novels?
AS: The First Christmas of the War is actually the first of a series of four holiday-set, similarly-structured novels featuring the Coleman family. Next up is Thanksgiving, 1942, taking place – as one can tell from the title – eleven months after the initial book’s Christmas, 1941 setting. The next title is The First Christmas After the War, set at Christmastime, 1945. Finally, a concluding novel set in the 1970s takes a final holiday visit with the Coleman family.
MA: Sounds like a nice set of books. Anything else you’d like add before we wrap it up?
AS: Over the years, I’ve had many, many people ask me about the writing business and my own experiences in the context of book or story ideas they’ve had themselves. I always enjoy sharing my experiences with others and am always more than willing to help people navigate today’s publishing world, craft proposals…pretty much anything.
MA: Thanks Alan for appearing on my blog, and thanks for your military service. Please visit Alan’s websites for more information about this amazing author and his projects: www.alansimonbooks.com and www.thinkinghelmet.com.
MA: I’m delighted to welcome back to Mike Angley’s Blog, Sylvia Massara. Sylvia first guested with me on September 3, 2010, and you can go back and read her original post here: All the Way from Australia Comes Romantic Comedy Author, Sylvia Massara to Guest with Mike Angley
I won’t repeat her biography here, but you can find it at the link above, or visit her website for even more information about her: www.sylviamassara.com
MA: Tell me again what you did before becoming a writer.
SM: Prior to embarking on my writing career, I spent many years in the corporate world being a HR Manager, a Trainer/Lecturer, and most recently I started a business, Tudor Writing Services, where I provide proofreading/editing/website and social media services. Having said this, my true love has always been acting. I can remember wanting to be an actress since the age of 5. I was in lots of school productions, and later in amateur theatre. I also did a stint (when I was in between jobs) as an extra in some Aussie soapies, where I rubbed shoulders with actresses such as Melissa George and Isla Fisher, whom I believe made a bit of a name for themselves in the US. I was also in TV commercials and a couple of documentaries.
MA: You are a self-proclaimed day dreamer…is that one of your fiction influences?
SM: Well, I always lived my life in what you might call a ‘world of make believe’. Even now I do this. Ever since I can remember I always caught myself day dreaming; and I usually run several plots through my head at any given time. So I guess it was natural for me to progress to a career as a writer. I’ve been writing since I was a teenager and always loved it. Besides, you can write till you’re 90, whereas an acting career may not last that long.
MA: The last time you visited with me, you talked about your novel, The Other Boyfriend (which my daughter thoroughly enjoyed, by the way!). What are you here to tell us about today?
SM: The Soul Bearers is a rather spiritual story which deals with courage, friendship and unconditional love. It was partly inspired by true life events. In terms of genre, I guess you could put it under ‘literary fiction’ ‘mainstream drama’, not sure where, but it does make a good read and you better have those tissues handy.
A bit more about the story: The story involves three people whose lives cross for a short period of time, and the profound effect which results from their interaction. Alex Dorian, freelance travel writer, and a survivor of severe child abuse, arrives in Sydney in an attempt to exorcise the ghosts of her past. She shares a house with Steve and the disturbing Matthew, a homosexual couple. Alex finds herself inexplicably attracted to Matthew and must battle with her repressed sexuality and her fear of intimacy.
I believe readers of The Soul Bearers will come away with a deeper understanding of human relationships and of what it means to truly love without condition.
MA: You did something interesting with your characters in this new book. Tell us about that.
SM: There are three main characters, and the story is told through their respective points of view. Even smaller characters have their point of view. This makes the story more intricate as we see the events develop through all the characters, but mainly the main three, being Alex, Steve and Matthew.
You ask how I developed the characters and all I can say is that in terms of the gay couple it wasn’t so difficult. Having come from a hospitality background, I made lots of friends who were gay and I socialized with many of them. So I knew what their way of life was like. For, Alex, it was a little more difficult as she is the victim of sexual abuse. I also have a good friend who was unfortunate enough to have been a victim of sexual abuse as a child and from what I learned through her, and my own research, I came up with Alex.
MA: Are your characters larger than life or are they flawed like us all?
SM: All my characters are flawed; even the very spiritual and wise, Steve. They all have something to learn and something to give to each other. But I guess Steve comes out as the strongest. He’s facing imminent death from AIDS and his only concern is that he leave his partner well provided for, both emotionally and financially. And he manages to do this through Alex (that is, the emotional part of it). I can’t say that Steve has any real weaknesses, except that he likes to ‘arrange’ the lives of others in some way.
Alex is strong in that she managed to survive her childhood ordeal and carved out a life for herself. But she must still face the ghosts of her past and fear holds her back from many an opportunity for growth. The same thing applies to Matthew, but in a different way; he’s living with the rejection of his parents, his partner’s illness and his fear of what the future will bring. Matthew is not so much strong as he is chivalrous and protective of those he loves.
MA: I suspect you don’t have a traditional antagonist in The Soul Bearers, and that perhaps life itself is the “bad guy.”
SM: There is no bad guy per se, but there are bad people in the past of all three characters. There is Alex’s stepfather, who sexually abused her; her mother, who lived in denial of it; then you have Matthew’s parents and their rejection of the only son they have. So you could say these people are the bad guys.
MA: What comes after this latest release? Are you working on anything new?
SM: I will turn back to more lighthearted novels; and I plan another ‘chick lit’ story, but this one will probably be a series featuring the same heroine.
MA: I believe you have a book trailer for your newest release. Where can people find it?
SM: For more on The Soul Bearers check out my website and blog (www.sylviamassara.com). There is a video I posted there that tells you a little bit about the story. The book released in September 2010 and is available in ebook format through Amazon and Smashwords, and sometime in the next couple of months it will be made available in paperback. Read More
Fellow Military Writers Society of America (MWSA) Author Erin Rainwater Swings by to Visit with Mike Angley
MA: It’s a real treat for me today to have as my guest a fellow member of the Military Writers Society of America (MWSA), and Rocky Mountain neighbor, Erin Rainwater. Erin is a Pennsylvania native who says she probably should have been born in the 19th century but somehow got flash-forwarded into the 20th. There was never any question that she would be a nurse when she grew up, regardless of which century she was in. And beginning in about the seventh grade, there was no question that she’d launch that nursing career in the military. The daughter of a WWII intelligence officer, she entered the Army after graduating from nursing school. That was during the Vietnam War era, and she was privileged to care for the bodies and spirits of soldiers and veterans, including repatriated POWs and MIAs. Her military experience has helped in writing parts of her novels. Her support of the military has been life long and is ongoing, and one of her favorite pastimes is volunteering at the USO in Denver. She participated in Operation Desert Swap, having “adopted” a soldier in Iraq to whom she sent a copy of her novel for reading and swapping with his fellow troops. Erin now lives in Colorado with her husband of 35 years, has four children and the four most adorable grandchildren on the planet.
Erin, thank you for your service. Please tell us a little more about your background, especially your military service.
ER: My “back story” consists of being born and raised in a suburb of Pittsburgh, PA, attending nursing school there, and going directly into the Army Nurse Corps upon graduation. I served for three years during the Vietnam War era, including duty stations at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, the 121st Evac Hospital in Korea, and at Walter Reed in D.C. I got married while still in the Army, and after my discharge I worked part time—mostly in ICU—while raising our four children. I only started writing when I was in my thirties.
MA: I’m familiar with the 121st from my two tours in Korea…a huge facility. Nursing and writing – how did you end up becoming an author?
ER: I’ve always loved fiction, especially historicals, so it was natural for me to migrate toward that genre when I began writing. As for novel length versus short stories, it’s not so much a choice as a lack of ability on my part to write shorter tales. I just plain lack the capacity to spin a yarn in less than 45,000 words. My new release, Refining Fires, started out as a short story, but there was just too much story to tell, and my attempts to limit it failed miserably. My critique group hounded me into telling the full story, so the three-part novel was born. I consider the term “short story” an oxymoron.
MA: Tell us more about your latest release.
ER: Refining Fires is unique in format and storytelling approach. It’s three-stories-in-one format, beginning with “Refining Fire.” Clare Canterbury is a nurse with a tarnished professional reputation seeking work. Any work. She answers an ad for a live-in nurse situation, caring for a disabled Korean War veteran. Little does she know what she’s in for. He tosses her out of his home. But his anger is no match for her pluck, and she finagles her way into his employ, his home, and eventually his heart. As she ministers to Peter’s body, his soul develops a raw yearning for a life and a love he’d long ago thought hopeless. Theirs is quite a romance, but “Refining Fire” is only the beginning of their love story. In the second story, a little girl named Susannah shows grit beyond her years as she faces her biggest fear. She must go it alone on a treacherous journey down a mountain to save her mother’s life, then faces harder times yet to come. The love that Peter and Clare share has an immense impact on this extraordinary child who is filled with “Blind Courage.” Finally, you’ll meet the “Kept Woman” bent on self-destruction until a child and a man from her past teach her about who has been keeping her all along. Refining Fires is not your prototypical romance. It’s made up of three stories of people seeking redemption in one form or another, whose paths cross, showing how God’s hand is ever on us, leading and refining as we go.
MA: I understand you take a unique approach to developing your characters. Please talk about that.
ER: This might sound strange, but for me it’s never been so much about my developing my characters as it is my catching on to the nuances of their personalities. Although I begin with a concept of who I want the main characters to be and what they will be like, I honestly discover things about them right along with the reader as we trek further into the story. Take Peter Cochran in Refining Fires, for instance. We initially see his darker, angry side, but in time, as the walls of his internal fortress begin to crumble, we gain insight into what’s been there all along—astounding courage (even in the face of death, I later discovered), humility, a sense of humor, and the longing to be loved for who he is and not for what he has.
MA: What are Peter’s strengths and weaknesses?
ER: I mentioned his courage, which is one of his great strengths. His nurse Clare points out that not only did he show heroism in the war but during his recovery from his injuries as well—fourteen times he’s been through those operating room doors, plus he learned to walk again, every step he took a victory in itself. His greatest weakness is his lack of awareness that he possesses any of these strengths, or that any of it matters. He also had chosen a lifestyle contrary to his early Christian upbringing, then became embittered when consequence time arrived.
MA: What about an antagonist…is there a unique “bad guy” or a recurring nemesis of any kind?
ER: Ooh, that is such a cool question. In my two previous books, I’ve had some really nasty villains (one reader told me every time the heavy in True Colors entered the scene it made her skin crawl). And there is one character in Refining Fires who definitely is the “bad girl.” But for the most part, Peter is his own worst nemesis.
MA: Given your nursing background, your service in the military, and your overseas time in Korea, I imagine a lot of your real experiences influenced your writing of Refining Fires?
ER: Yep, they sure did. Clare Canterbury is a former Army nurse, as am I. Some of our military experiences were similar. Read More