We are joined by author Michael Polelle on the podcast this week. Michael is a former lawyer and emeritus law professor who started his writing career after he retired from practicing law. He talks to us about his two novels, The Mythros Conspiracy and American Conspiracy, what his research process was like for his books, and what his writing process (which includes morning chocolate!) is like.
- Michael tells us about his career as a lawyer and law professor, and what inspired him to start writing novels in his retirement
- He explains what his research process looks like, how he balances the fictional world of his thrillers with historical facts, and why he’s included his research notes on his website for his readers
- Michael discusses plotting his novels and how he built both the thriller aspect as well as the conspiracy theories within the novels, and why his writing is driven by the question “what if?”
- He talks about finding a passion for writing later in life and how he went about working on his craft and finding a community of authors
- Michael tells us why he decided to publish indie and why he’s found working with an indie publishing house so helpful as he begins his second career as an author
- He explains his writing routine, which includes a healthy amount of coffee and morning chocolate, why he doesn’t put too much pressure on himself to write a certain amount daily, and he shares the piece of writing advice he’s found the most useful
A native Chicagoan, M.J. Polelle is an emeritus professor of the University of Illinois Chicago School of Law. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he practiced civil litigation in Chicago before joining the faculty of De Paul University College of Law and then the UIC-School of Law. He taught a comparative law course in Parma, Italy and served as a Special Assistant State’s Attorney for several years. His first novel, The Mithras Conspiracy (Lido Press: 2019), a history-based mystery, was a 2020 finalist in both the Eric Hoffer Book Awards and Royal Palm Literary Awards of the Florida Writers Association. It also earned an IndieBRAG Medallion for placing in the top tier of reviewed novels. He did original research in Rome, Italy concerning the Mithras cult. His second novel, American Conspiracy (Lido Press: 2021), a political thriller, drew on his years as a lawyer, a professor of constitutional law, and the fateful presidential election of 2016. M.J. Polelle lives now with his wife, Donna, in Sarasota, Florida.
Transcription Provided by Speechpad
Joni: Hey writers, you’re listening to the “Kobo Writing Life” podcast, where we bring you insights and inspirations for growing your self-publishing business. We’re your hosts. I’m Joni, author engagement specialist at Kobo Writing Life.
Rachel: And I’m Rachel, author engagement coordinator at Kobo Writing Life.
Joni: On today’s episode of the podcast, we spoke to Michael Polelle, who’s a Harvard Law School graduate, a professor of the John Marshall Law School in Chicago, and an award winning legal writer.
Rachel: We had a great conversation with Michael, who didn’t start his writing career until after he had retired from his law career. We spoke to him a lot about his writing routine, which involves morning chocolate, which is something that I will be implementing in my life as soon as possible. And we talk to him about how he plots out his thrillers and the research that goes into them. That was a great conversation, and we hope you enjoy.
Joni: All right, we are here today with Michael Polelle, who has written two books and is a former lawyer turned author, and he is here to chat to us a little bit about his career. Thanks so much for joining us, Michael.
Michael: Well, thank you, Joni, for inviting me. I was a former lawyer in Chicago in civil litigation. But most of my career was in teaching. I taught at DePaul University School of Law in Chicago and also at the University of Illinois Chicago School of Law. I became an emeritus professor in 2011, my wife, Donna, and I moved down here to Florida, and we’ve enjoyed it ever sets living in Sarasota. It was a wonderful environment for me to begin my second act in life, which is writing. And so I finished my first book, “The Mithras Conspiracy,” in 2019. And I have now just finished my second book, “American Conspiracy.”
Joni: Can you tell us a little bit about how you came to your writing career.
Michael: I came to my writing career, I think, like a number of lawyers. I always enjoyed writing, but I knew I didn’t think I could make a living with it. But more importantly, I also enjoyed being a lawyer. I enjoyed the trial work, trial practice, a great career, but at some point I realized that I still had this unfulfilled ambition to write fiction. And that occurred for me, when I went to a lecture by Scott Turow in Chicago. He had just finished writing “One L.” And I had gone to the same law school, and I thought, “Well, I was there, and I experienced the same thing, but he wrote about it.” So that inspired me.
And then, when Donna and I married 2014, I went to Rome for our honeymoon. And we went to the old ancient port of Ostia, in a twilight amid the rooms. I just had this vision of writing a book in modern times, but set in ancient Rome. And a year before “The Da Vinci Code” had come out by Dan Brown, and that certainly inspired me. So I think Dan Brown, Scott Turow, and of course, John Grisham, all have made me realize it’s now or never. So, when I moved to Sarasota, I was deprived of all excuses not to write, I had the time to write, I had the beautiful weather. So, I was deprived of excuses. So that’s when I really got into it and enjoyed it.
Rachel: Before we started recording, you had mentioned that you went to Rome to do some of the research for this book. So I was kind of wondering if you could touch on what your research process was like and what your experience was like in Rome researching.
Michael: It was probably the best time I’ve had in Rome, certainly, because I had been to Rome numerous times and to Italy numerous times, both professionally because I taught a course in Italy, in Parma, a law course. But this time, I’d seen all the usual tourist sites. And I was simply there to do research for my book on the cult of Mithras. Mithras was an ancient religion coexisted with Christianity for about 200 years, actually. And a number of Mithraic sites are built under the churches in Rome, which is not unusual. So, we hired an Italian archaeologist who in classical art scholar, who was our tour guide for these underground sites. And it really opened my world to the research of the Mithras conspiracy.
It’s interesting, because in my research, I also found that Martin Luther King, when he was a second year student at the Crozer Theological Institute wrote a paper on similarities between Christianity and Mithraism. And so, that propelled me. What it really did is it expanded my notion of how much people have in common, even though they come from different political backgrounds, different religious backgrounds, that there’s an opportunity for people who are curious to learn about other cultures, religions, other ways of doing things. And of course, there’s also been that strain of humanity that is fearful of anything new, or different, or challenges.
In fact, I have on my website, http://www.mjpolelle.com, a wonderful quote by Dr. Steven Derfler, who was at the University of Minnesota, who in writing a blurb for my book, said, “Religion has brought about the best and the worst of humankind.” And I think that it summarizes, in a way, the theme that runs through my book. But it’s actually set in modern times, when Commissario Marco Leone discovers the body of a Vatican scholar floating in the Tiber, he then has to overcome a tragic family history and a neo-fascist conspiracy decided to take over the government. And that actually…the ending of that book led me to my second book called “The American conspiracy.”
Joni: Awesome. So you said that you were originally inspired to write by…who was the person that you heard?
Michael: Probably the most direct person for my book, which is a history-based mystery, called “The Mithras Conspiracy,” was Dan Brown. “Da Vinci Code” had come out and Rick Kogan of WGN AM, in fact, immediately saw the similarities between “The Da Vinci Code” and my book, and all the reviewers that I’ve had the book reviewed by have noted the similarity which I definitely intended. Because I’ve always been intrigued by historical facts that don’t completely answer the question where you have to say, “What if?” That’s similar to what lawyers do when they talk about circumstantial evidence, “We know fact A, B, and C. And that leads to a possible conclusion of D.” So that intrigued me as a writer. And it’s the same thing that I think Dan Brown was doing. And also, another one of my mentors, if you will, Steve Berry, who’s a former lawyer, who is also turned mystery writer, who writes about history-based conspiracies.
Joni: So like Dan Brown, he does a lot of research into the facts behind his fiction, I wonder, how is it for you writing fiction while also researching the factual stuff? How do you know…is it challenging to find where to draw the line between what you’ve learned that’s true and what you’re writing into the fiction?
Michael: Always challenging, especially for a former law professor, because one side of your brain says the more information the better, like a scholar with hundreds of footnotes. But when I retired, I had this idea that came into my mind for a book someday “A Life Without Footnotes,” where I wanted to be able to write creatively and not just citing other books. So you’re right. There’s always that fine line between the book research and original research, which is why I felt compelled to go to Rome to find out new facts about the Mithras conspiracy, Mithras. And to use that in my book, but there is a fine line, you just can’t dump information on readers. Because then you’re killing the creative, imaginative impulse.
Rachel: I just wanna touch back on what you said about lawyers and circumstantial evidence and kind of building a case. And I was wondering how you went about building the conspiracy and the thriller mystery aspect of your book? How did you plot out what was gonna take place, the twists and turns, and all that jazz?
Michael: Well, first, I wanted to establish the admitted historical facts. There is the Villa of the Papyri, which I mentioned in my book, and it exists. It’s an ancient villa, apparently owned by the father-in-law of Julius Caesar. It was discovered in 18th century, and in the course of the centuries, some 2000 scrolls have been unearth. A lot of them could not be read, because it was like phyllo dough, Greek dough curled up in the volcanic fire. And as soon as you opened it, it would turn to dust. Well, modern technology has allowed scientists to unroll it. And a number of those scrolls have now been transcribed with the Greek poetry, some verses from Latin but mostly Greek. And scholars think there’s a lot more down there. It’s been closed for various reasons. But my imagination said, “Well, this was the largest library of antiquity that we know about so far.” And my imagination said, “Well, there’s a fact, what else could be down there?” And then, I learned about the cult of Mithras and the similarities it has to early Christianity. And I thought, well, you know, St. Paul, originally one through Herculaneum, in that area, to Rome when he was tried. And I thought, “What if they met? What if there was a meeting between these two diverse religions? How would they relate to each other?”
Now, I didn’t wanna write a book just about the past. So the book is set in the near future, where there’s a crisis in Italy, not the first but this time, a political crisis, where there’s a threatened coup, which is really kind of intrigued me. Because if you’ve been listening to the news, there was a report that the former general of United States, Michael Flynn, who was our national security adviser, and answer to a question reportedly said…the question was could what happened in Myanmar happen here? He said, “It can. It’s something that should.” Now, today, he retracted it.
But I thought my heavens, here I’m writing about…I’m interested with conspiracies, political coups in ancient times, in modern Italy. And I’m thinking, what we’ve gone through in the last year it makes us realize that what happened elsewhere is danger here, a possibility. In fact, what really got me to finish my current book, “The American Conspiracy,” was a quotation. And it was by now President Joe Biden. He said this and what he’s campaigning on August 23rd, 2019, “Imagine if, God forbid, Obama had become assassinated after becoming the de facto nominee, what would have happened in America?” That immediately at least, “what if” is the question all novelists have to ask, and that really got my juices going. Because there’s a legal problem here in the United States. The Constitution doesn’t say what happens if a president elect who appears to have enough votes, the electoral college is assassinated, what happens? So I start with both my right brain, the lawyer in me because I taught constitutional law, and I know the problems in the Constitution, some of what we’ve already experienced this last year, but there are more. And then, I took the left brain, put together the known facts with the possibilities of what could happen. But, you know, I have this experiences as a fiction writer, reality always seems to be threatening to overtake me.
What I mean is this in my first book, “The Mithras Conspiracy,” I had a pope who resigned. At the time I wrote this first draft, no Pope had ever resigned since the Middle Ages. And then along comes Benedict. Because if you’d asked people before, they’d said, “Oh, that’s kind of just sheer speculation.” In this book, “The American Conspiracy,” I have what I call the backdoor president who becomes president after the election is thrown into the Congress. And Congress has to decide the next president, much political turmoil, and she happens to be African-American. And this is before Kamala Harris. So, I think this is really weird., but it’s fascinating how… I think it’s one of the things that I enjoy taking real political facts that are current, and then using your imagination.
Joni: So because you came to writing later in life, did you feel that you had to learn how to be a writer? And how did you do that? How did you work on your craft?
Michael: Absolutely, absolutely. Because, to generalize, I had to take what you might call the right brain rational side of being a lawyer, which served me very well in many ways. Because I know how to research, I know to spend a lot of hours doing research, but it doesn’t help in terms of imagination, or creativity, or curiosity. And so, I took courses at the Writers’ Loft in Chicago, I attended a number of writers conferences. I’m a member of the Florida Writers Association. And I feel I’m making progress. My book, “The Mithras Conspiracy,” was a finalist in the 2020 mystery category for the Florida Writers Novels. And it was also a finalist in the Eric Crawford Commercial Fiction for 2020. So, it is a craft. It does take a bit to readjust your thinking, not to abandon the other parts of your past history but to use it in the service of your creativity. At least that’s my experience.
Joni: And you mentioned is that the Florida Writers Association?
Michael: Florida Writers Association, right.
Joni: And how have you found the author community? Are you quite involved with that community in Florida? Have you find a lot of other people like you, who started later and who live in your area, who like to write?
Michael: Well, I joined a couple of years ago, and unfortunately, last year, everything was online, in fact, this year. So, it’s been kind of a virtual relationship. But I have made some great contacts. And in fact, I was able to contact Steve Berry, who has been very generous in offering some tips and advice and agreed to take a look at my manuscript. So, I find that writers have generally been supportive, when I’ve gone to the conferences I’ve gone to I found that that to be the case.
Joni: Nice. Yeah, we hear a lot from authors about the importance of the community, especially with indies. Was publishing independently always part of your plan?
Michael: No, no, I knew a little about it. So I thought, well, what you do is you try to get an agent, then I realized reality sets up that is very difficult for new writers, if not impossible. Now, it’s tantalizing because occasionally, you get agents who want to see the first 50 pages. Some want to see the full manuscript, one who’d like the manuscript but then cancel for some reason unknown to me. So I realized that after this spending, I think, almost a year or more than a year trying to find an agent, “Why am I doing this?” I found out about this whole world of independent publishing.
So, I belong to the alliance of independent publishers. Now I’m a big fan. In fact, my two books are being… I’m working and actually in a partnership with Girl Friday Productions of Seattle, they’re really you might call a hybrid publisher that has been what is on the Jane Freedman list of reputable hybrid publishers. And I’ve had a good experience with the editing. So that much of the technical work that beyond my pay grade, they mercifully take care of. So, it’s been a good relationship and a good experience. And so, I find that it’s more satisfying because there’s more feedback, rather than dealing with an agent, where there’s really no personal contact that gets unless you establish a relationship, which I haven’t.
Rachel: You mentioned that this publishing house kind of took on a lot of the editorial not really responsibilities, but they helped you out with that. Did they also help you with the cover design, because both Joni and I really enjoyed the cover. And I was kind of wondering if you had any say in bringing that together and what inspired it?
Michael: Absolutely. That’s what I love about it. It’s really a partnership. And in like many hybrid companies, there are different fees for whatever you wanna do. I mean, it depends how far you wanna go, for example, now, I think they have more of a marketing program, too, if you wanna enter the marketing program. But these are all typically a pro rata, depending on what you wanna pay for the service. Now, there are basic fees depending on your manuscript. But I found it really a partnership, because there’s give and take. They’ve given me ideas for the topics of novels, what the title might be, whether it’s a good title. So, I felt there’s really was exchange. It reminds me…if you ever see movies about the old ways, the old relationship between agents and authors, like Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, it’s really kind of what it is in a sort of distant way online, of course. But I find it much better than the very…I don’t know, just very cold, sort of indifferent approach to traditional publishing, where unless you have something that the agent falls in love with and whatever that means, you really…it’s gonna be a hard road to haul.
And I realize agents have their problems. They’re dealing with a tough market. In fact, I just watched the documentary on Philip Roth. And he said, “He didn’t expect novels to exist until about 2015.” Because visual media has taken over American culture. So, when he started writing, there’s just television. Now we’ve got Instagram, we’ve got Twitter, we’ve got all kinds of visual imagery. And I think visual imagery is seductive, because I watch Netflix, I watch Prime, and I know that they could get by with things you would never get by with a novelist and lack of continuity because the image grabs your attention. And so you’re not focused analytically on the plot, particularly. So in some ways, it’s a lot harder for a writer.
Joni: This is something that we talk about a lot at Kobo, about the fight for attention and all the different areas that people are distracted by, do you think that that is true? Do you think that novels are being pushed out by these other things? Or do you think that there’s space for all of it, all these forms of entertainment?
Michael: I think they’ll always be space for all of it. I think the great era of Hemingway, Faulkner where a novelist becomes the national hero, I think that’s probably gone, because there are just too many communities that have their own niche. But I do think there will be a place for novels, I think…that’s one of the things I like about these the independent publishing that it’s doing, which is not being done by the traditional publishing, it’s at least open to new writers to give them a chance to establish a foothold. And the difficulty, of course, is you have over a million books a year being published now, so easy to publish. So, the problem is not new writers. The problem is, how can you make choices when you don’t have information? That’s why podcasts such as you’re doing are really one of the few lifelines I think for new writers who are trying to write independently.
Joni: Yeah. I mean, in one way, we noticed last year with the pandemic, when people were stuck at home, they were buying books, people were definitely turning to that. So, I think that you’re right. I don’t see books going anywhere. But another thing that’s changed is that I think there was a period in history when the only people reading were the elites, right? It wasn’t something everyone was doing. And now, I think everybody is reading so you are reaching more and more people. So yes, there’s more competition. There’s a lot of readers.
Michael: Yeah, that’s a good point. Although remember, Dickens was serialized, so the people can read him in the newspaper. But you’re right, there is more of a mass audience. But the question is, is it really one mass audience or mass audiences? It seems to me there are different communities.
Michael: For example, I loved…I like you using Zoom. There are some of my friends who would never…who don’t like Zoom. There are people who love emails. Sometimes I don’t, I think emails for nuance conversation are very difficult. I’ve had some disagreements with Girl Friday, because we misunderstood each other in terms of emails, or phone calls cleared up. So, I think that’s wonderful we have all these ways of communication. But it’s like going into a grocery store and seeing 100 different brands of cereal with slight differences. And you wonder, “How do I make a choice?” That’s the problem.
Joni: Yeah. I think you’re right about different audiences for different books. Do you know much about your audience? Do you have a lot of contact with your readers?
Michael: Not a lot. I could contact by readers who are generally interested in history, have some knowledge of history. There is a group out there called the Mithraic Society. So, they are obviously very interested in the cult of Mithras. And on my website, I do have a contact. But there’s also one if you’d want my notes, the historical notes on which I’m basing my novel, “The Mithras Conspiracy.” So, I would say a number of people have asked for that. They haven’t necessarily bought the novel, but they’re interested in learning something new. And I guess that’s one of my points as a writer, I feel the writer needs to entertain, most of all, keep people interested, but also to add something: information, whatever it is, so that there’s a kind of information about things you might not have known about before that you might be curious about. So, I think they’ll always be an audience for people who are curious about learning new aspects of life, whether it’s politics, religion, or whatever.
Rachel: I was gonna ask you about the author notes available on your website, would you be able to give us kind of a sneak peek without giving anything away of what people would get if they asked to receive the author notes?
Michael: Right. To show how this is not just a fantasy that I’ve written about “The Mithras Conspiracy,” I wanted to give historical facts, at least as best we know them. And so the notes consist of two parts. One is the detailed information about Mithras and the seven stages of growing spiritually. For example, we think of Roman society as being very hierarchical and rigid, noble classes and the impoverished. It’s true, but in this society, slaves and regardless of your social status, were treated equally. They were all on a spiritual pursuit, which seems very similar to early Christian communities. So, those historical facts would bore a reader unless you’re a classical scholar lecturing, I put in the notes, if you’re interested, you can pursue them, but they’re not necessarily appreciating the novel. In fact, they might detract in a novel. The second part of the notes consists of modern Italian history. Few people unless they’re students of World War 2, know that in the years of led, there were attempts to overthrow the Italian government that partly it was sponsored by the CIA to in case the Soviets invaded Europe, there would be resistance groups in France and in Italy.
And so, weapons were stashed away in the Italian countryside, which were seized, in some cases, apparently, by rightist groups who tried to overthrow the government, but were put down in the Masonic Lodge conspiracy along with others. So people don’t realize that I mean, in our own day, the Turkish conspiracy was an attempt to overturn the Turkish Government, Erdogan, but it didn’t succeed. So, these are notes that historically would weigh down the novel. But I think if people know history, they might be more interested in having their imagination stirred about what else might be out there, what could be out there, in terms of curiosity.
Rachel: That’s I think that’s a really interesting tool to offer other authors in your genre, almost kind of this is all of the research that’s been done, and then this is how it plays into the book and kind of compare the two. I just think that’s really interesting.
Michael: Well, I can’t claim originality. Dan Brown does that in several of his novels, but he does it in his not…at the end of his novel, it gives…and I think Steve Barry does it too. They give what they call historical notes in the novel, in the novel itself. I felt my notes were too long. And actually, I thought of it a little too late, the book had already come out. So that’s why I put it on my website. But I think it’s a good idea for people who are writing what you might call history-based novels. They’re not historical novels, as I learned, when agents pointed out to me. Historical novel is set completely in the past. But a history-based novel is set in the present with references and reverberations that occur in the past that echo today. And I’d like that idea because I decided to write it in the present because that’s where we’re living. We’re living in the present, and that’s more vivid to us. It affects us our daily life. You know, what an election is going to be in the United States and how close we came to or avoided a certain kind of political movement?
Joni: Definitely. Can you tell us about your writing process? How do you work it into your day?
Michael: Well, I have the luxury of being an emeritus professor, so I have time. But it’s surprising, my brother told me when I retired that I would be very busy. He turned out he was right. Things seem to happen as you know. Plumbing goes bad, you have to fix it, cars break down. What I do is I don’t believe in rigidity, I do not follow the Hemingway rule that you have to count a certain number of words every day. And if you don’t meet that, I guess you’re supposed to feel bad about yourself. I don’t believe that. I wanna write for pleasure. I wanna write because I feel good about it, and not because it’s a duty. I just think it would kill any creative spark I have. So, I have what I call a rhythm. I generally write in the morning, if something happens, I don’t get upset about it, I just start again. So for me, writing in the morning is the most productive, but I must have my coffee and read my paper first and a bit of chocolate. I have my rituals, like all writers.
So I write in the morning, and I’ll break for lunch. Before COVID, I used to go down into town because I live on one of the islands, Lido Key, and have coffee, come back in the afternoon. And maybe I might have gotten a new idea. If I get stuck, what I typically do is take a break, try to get out of the house, have a cup of coffee, because I can do my best thinking over cappuccino. And then just doodle, doodle on paper. Just let my gathering wall or my mind wander. And it will give me an idea. One of the Hemingway bits…one of the bits of advice I did learn from reading about Hemingway and his style was to ideally end where you know where you’re going. In other words, if you can end the day, before you’ve finished that segment of your novel, then you know where to pick up. It really helps eliminate any kind of writer’s block.
You know, honestly, I don’t feel I’ve ever really had a severe writer’s block. I think it’s because apparently I don’t worry about it. If I’m stuck for a day or two, I don’t worry about it, I feel the well is filling itself up unconsciously. Now, I will admit, after three days, I get a little nervous. I compare it to drinking coffee. If I miss my cappuccino, I get a little withdrawal first day, second day, third day, I gotta do something. So, my body and my mind tells me when it’s time to get back to the desk, I don’t have to beat it into submission. That’s what I find. And for me, it’s enjoyable, it keeps me going. The fact that I look forward to it. I know that like any profession and is a profession. There’s going to be the drudgery, there’s going to be the editing that I don’t particularly like. How do you spell that word? Does this one have a hyphen in it? What does Miriam saying? What does Chicago Manual style, say? You have to go through that. But at the end of the day, I’m looking for that spark that runs through it that keeps you going, that intrigues you, that interest you. And like I wanna make it a creative experience
Joni: That actually sounds like a perfect way to spend the day.
Rachel: And I’m intrigued by this morning chocolate…
Joni: A walk and a cappuccino.
Rachel: Morning chocolate sounds like something I need to adopt into my life immediately.
Michael; Oh, but I’m a very…I’m a purist, I have no sugar chocolate, basically. I melt it in the microwave and put pistachios in their melt it. And what you do is you then do that, you make your little cookies. And you put it in the refrigerator on a tray for an hour. And then you’ve got your little cookies with pistachios, or whatever nuts you want with…
Rachel: You are living the life.
Joni: You’re just blowing Rachel’s mind.
Rachel: You’ve changed my life.
Michael: That’s how I learned to read a script.
Joni: Here we go, tip for writers. I actually really like the Hemingway tip but not quite finishing for one day before the next. It’s almost a bit counterintuitive. But it makes a lot of sense to be able to come in the next day and be like, “Right, I know exactly where I am.”
Michael: You know where to start right.
Joni: And then you’ve got things going I think that’s great.
Michael: You can’t always do that. One thing I noticed when I had this radio interview with Rick Kogan of WGN he’s sitting he noticed that a lot of chapters are short, and then mine were short. And they weren’t that way years ago. And that’s one of the things I learned. We we’re talking about this earlier. I think attention spans, at least reading, are probably less understandably, because visual media doesn’t require much. It just requires that you be engrossed in the moment. And so, I conscious…well, I don’t know consciously, maybe I have absorbed the visual culture. But my chapters are much shorter than they would be if I were writing scholarly text. Frankly, I think it’s probably for the best because I think readers nowadays don’t have a lot of time. And they typically…I know I do. I’ll read a chapter, and then something comes up and I just can’t read like I did when I had no obligations or in college just read for hours at a time straight through.
So, my chapters generally are shorter, but I think that’s pretty much in line with the way at least mystery literature is going and it has the influence I think of people like Steve Berry and others have influenced me, as far as learning the craft probably the best I…well, one of the best ways I learned it was by going by ThrillerFest in New York City two years in a row before the pandemic struck luckily. So, I was able to go there in person listening to lectures by Steve Berry, and other writers who really cut to the chase gave me a lot of good tips. I think without them, it would have been a lot longer getting my first novel off the ground.
Joni: Fantastic. I think it’s so great that you were able to start writing and keep writing, keep as engaged as you are, and learn something that’s pretty new to you. I think that’s amazing.
Michael: Yeah, I guess I belong to a group of writers that feels that for me, I have to be involved with what’s going on in the outside world. So, science fiction would definitely not be my thing. It’s too introverted. They’re all kinds of writing for everybody. I’d like to be involved in what issue is going on in society. For my next novel, I don’t know right now, but something is beginning to percolate. For example, I live in Florida, where we have closed primaries, where if you’re an independent voter, you can’t vote any primaries. So, it means I have no say in deciding who’s running is ultimately going to be selected for president, for example. The lawyer part of me says, “If this isn’t right, it’s, I believe it’s a constitutional, and I’m thinking to be involved with it in some way, maybe working with other lawyers to file a lawsuit or not.” But another part of me is already thinking, “How can I combine this with a potential novel?” Because I’m starting to work on, “What do I do now.?” And I can’t say I talked to a friend of mine, who’s also a indie novelist, and he already has two or three ideas. I don’t…I’m not worried about it. But I see potential ways I can link it up maybe to what I’m doing.
For example, the first novel ends in Rome, with the Commissario solving, overcoming the conspiracy and flying to Chicago for a sabbatical with the Chicago Police Department where I grew up. And it came to me at the end of my first novel, that’s where my second novel begins, he arrives in Chicago, and there’s a death threat awaiting him from one of the plotters, who is suppressed by the suppression of the conspiracy. And so, he develops a relationship with Jim Murphy of the Chicago Police Department, who is facing a similar problem of an election now, that is in turmoil, everyone’s not sure exactly who the president is. And so the main character, Commissario Leone, my first now becomes the buddy character of Jim Murphy. And that allowed me to focus on Chicago that I know well as a native, grew up there, still keep contacts about it, with it, and have a number of feelings.
I have a writer friend who said…he said something shows how writers are different. He said, “I finished my draft, and I’m going back and putting in the emotions.” And I couldn’t believe…I thought that’s exactly absolutely reversed the way I write. Unless I feel a strong passion or feeling about something I wouldn’t write, I wouldn’t write. It’s the only thing that keeps me going. Because otherwise, there’s a lot of sticking to your chair sort of stuff indoors that I don’t like. So, it’s funny how writers work. And so I have to find some topic that gets me…the juices going, you might say. And I find the close primary bothers me, because we talked a lot about voter suppression, rightly so. But everyone’s overlooking, in my mind, one of the biggest voter suppression of all, that people who wanna be independent, who don’t wanna be locked into polarization with sound bites are prevented from voting in 13 states in deciding who the candidate will be.
And often, you have a choice between two people, neither of whom you would have chosen had you been allowed to vote in the primary. So, I have strong feelings, obviously. But that’s the kind of thing I need in order to connect it with some Platt. So, I’m not sure it’ll work, but I know that’s kind of give you an idea of my thought process for novels.
Joni: Yeah, it sounds like a great way to channel that frustration or those kinds of thoughts that you’re having. I’m interested, you said, we were talking before about how you still live in Italy and you speak Italian. I’m curious, do you read in Italian at all? Because…
Michael: I do. I read a lot of Italian speaker. Yeah. In fact, from Chicago, I was a columnist for a while with Fra Noi, among us, for an Italian American group when I was a professor. I began to want to write things without footnotes. And so I think this is my first putting the toe in the water. I knew some of the people and I said, “Yeah, I can do a column for us.” So, I started writing columns, and they have a section that’s in Italian. And I have lifetime members, I keep getting the magazine every month.
Michael: But it’s very difficult. Unless you know you live in the country for a while gets rusty, but it’s…the way I compare. It’s like driving a car. You may not drive for 10 years but once you start up again, you’ll learn. You remember very quickly.
Joni: Let’s hope that’s true. Yeah. No, I’m curious because I feel like thriller is in that particular genre fiction is really, really popular in Italy. And there’s a lot of series I think I’m thinking Montalbano. Like, there’s a lot of series that are super popular.
Joni: Yes. Exactly.
Michael: Yeah. Well, there is a through Amazon Prime there’s something called MZH or something that connects you with European shows. And I’ve watched all the Montalbano and the Donna Leon, Brunetti, Commissario Brunetti. So, I’ve watched those series. Yeah, they’re popular. And I don’t know, you know, I keep thinking, well, maybe there’s a connection with Italy with my book.” But the first thing is, you’ve got to establish a base in the United States.
Joni: Yeah, maybe translation further down the line.
Michael: Yeah. So, it sounds like you’ve spent time in Italy or know the language a bit.
Joni: Yeah, I spent a couple of years there before I moved to Canada. So…
Michael: Oh, what part?
Joni: So I spent a year in Verona at the university there. And then I did a year as a teacher in Arezzo. But my dad is from Lazio. So yes, it’s been a while. I feel like I don’t speak it anymore. But I can understand.
Michael: I know it’s difficult. But when you go there, you’ll learn very quickly.
Michael: I remember that my best memory is…well, I have the best one. When I first went to Italy, I was a Fulbright student in Germany for a year. And my mother said, “You ought to visit these relatives in Italy.” So, I wrote a postcard saying I was coming and eventually got there. But they said the funny thing was that they took the postcard to the village priest because they didn’t understand English. And he said he couldn’t read it because it was in German, but it was actually in English.
Joni: Oh, that’s hilarious.
Michael: But the funniest thing was when I rode up the cab because I didn’t know how to get there. It was a farmhouse outside of Bologna. I saw these group of people running towards me. I thought, “Man, they must be mad. They were coming to embrace me and scold the driver for overcharging me.” So, I thought that’s family. But yeah, a lot of good memories.
Joni: That’s exciting.
Michael: So, that’s probably one of the things I was able to wanna work out in my novel. Why set in Italy? Because settings very important for me. So that Rome made an impression on me. And Chicago is a city of my birth for various reasons.
Joni: Yeah, setting’s super important.
Michael: Did you ever hear what Nelson Algren said about Chicago, the author? He’s a Chicago author, who had an affair with Simone de Beauvoir and French authors, who said, “Being in love with Chicago is like being in love with a woman with a broken nose.” Now, that’s very anti-PC nowadays, but it shows you when I was growing up, those were the ’50s. You know, I’m sure he was a very popular author at the time, a local author. So, there are these changes that occur in society. And I guess the job of an author is to keep track of them.
Rachel: Is there anywhere else you wanna travel to either research a book or inspire?
Michael: I love traveling. My wife and I just love traveling. We wanted to go to the Galapagos Islands before this broke, the pandemic. And it was canceled. We we’re supposed to go last May. So, I would like to go there. I’m just interested, I guess with ancient cultures, Mayan cultures. So, I think that’s one of the things that my wife and I share. I think many writers too. We’re just curious about different societies, how people do things. It’s a great source for novels. Because you get to see characters. You have nothing to do but focus on characters, and everything is different. And you’re out of your comfortable zone of the way you think. So yeah, we’re hoping to travel. This year, I don’t know. Probably the farthest we’ll go will be Chicago, maybe. But we’re still like everybody else trying to work our way to see what we can do or not.
Rachel: I hope you get back to Chicago before winter. Because winter in Chicago is rough.
Michael: One thing I’m clear about. Unless it’s absolutely necessary, I will never go back to Chicago in winter. People say, “Don’t you miss the winter?” Never, never. But I do miss certain things about the city, certain places I used to go. In fact, in my book, “The American Conspiracy,” there are a number of places that I did visit. As a former lawyer who taught law, you know, you can mention the places that I think they should be mentioned. But the people are fictitional.
Joni: Awesome. Well, I think we’ll start to wrap it up there. Can you tell us where the listeners can find you online?
Joni: Perfect. We will include that link. And your next book is out in June. Is that correct?
Michael: It should be I’m hoping the end of June or certainly July. We’re in the…what’s it called the final the proof copy, where they said, they couldn’t make changes, but please don’t make too many of them.
Joni: Right. Got it. So look out for that soon.
Michael: So we’re just about there. The inside of the book has been done, the design.
Michael: In fact, once I conclude this interview, I’m gonna go back to reading the chapters. We’re doing which you probably know it’s called a cold read, where you go through it, and as an author, I feel obligated to go through it, make sure there’s no error. It’s amazing. And maybe you’re familiar. We went through this in my first book, everybody looked at the book, one of my first readers, a friend in Sarasota spotted one word where the I and the E were reversed.
Joni: Oh, no.
Michael: You know, these things happen. But that’s the kind of thing that’s nitty-gritty work, not my most enthusiastic part of writing but part of me enjoys. It’s kind of like knitting, you know, it keeps you occupied. You can’t always be highly creative.
Michael: Great, thank you.
Joni: It’s a necessary part. Well, thank you so much for chatting with us.
Michael: You too.
Joni: This has been great.
Michael: Take care. Bye-bye.
Rachel: Thank you for listening to the “Kobo Writing Life” podcast. We will include a link to Michael’s website in the show notes. And if you’re enjoying this podcast, please be sure to rate, review, and subscribe. And for more tips on growing your self-publishing business, visit us at kobowritinglife.com. And be sure to follow us on socials. We’re @kobowritinglife on Facebook and Twitter, and @kobo.writing.life on Instagram.
Woman: This episode was produced by Joni Di Placido and Rachel Wharton. Editing is done by Kelly Rowbotham. Music is provided by Tearjerker. And huge thanks to Michael for being our guest. If you’re ready to start your self-publishing journey today, go to kobo.com/writinglife. Until next time, happy writing.