Interview with Michael E. Henderson, author of “A Beast in Venice”

Do all authors have to be grammar Nazis?

Yes and no. You must know and use proper grammar, but a novel is not an exercise in grammatical correctness. Sometimes the writing is better if the rules are violated. The most famous example of that is “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” It should be, “To go boldly…” Not quite the same, is it?

How important is research to you when writing a book?

Research is critical. Although it’s fiction, it still has to have elements of reality. If you write on a topic and don’t get it right, you’ll get hammered. For example, a courtroom scene. You’d better know how it’s really done, and not just how it’s shown on TV, or in the movies.
The same is true for historical things. I got hammered in a review once because the person thought the hairstyle of a ghost was not consistent with the era. I don’t know how she knew how teenage girls in rural Michigan in the 18th century wore their hair, but it got me a one-star review.

What inspires you to write?

Picasso said that inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us show up to work every day. I agree.

If you are a serious writer, you have to look at it as your job, even if you already have a job. Your boss doesn’t wait for you to be inspired.

Do you aim to complete a set number of pages or words each day?

I try to do about 2,000, but I don’t beat myself up if I don’t make it. The important thing is to make progress.

Are writers loners?

Writing is a solitary act, so it helps to be the type of person who can sit alone and work for a while.

Are you a “pantser” or do you outline?

All stories have to have a plot. That is, turning points and plot points at specific places in the story. I usually start with an idea as to how the story begins, how it ends, and basically what happens in the middle. To that extent, I plot, although I may not write it down.

“Pantsing,” or writing by the seat of your pants, is really nothing more than trying to find the story. Sometimes I write out a description of what happens from beginning to end, and try to get an idea of what the plot points are. Then I just go and get down the first draft.

In the second draft, I will massage it into the proper structure.

Do you read and reply to the reviews and comments of your readers?

No. I suggest that authors never read their reviews and, if they do, never respond. Reviews are critical to help other readers know about a book, but they don’t do the writer any good. If a reader has constructive criticism of a book, they should tell the author directly. We ain’t hard to find.

Does a bad review affect your writing?

A bad review just makes me angry and is discouraging. That’s why I don’t read reviews.

Any advice you would like to give to aspiring writers?

Learn the craft and finish school. Writing is not simply typing words onto paper. There’s grammar, punctuation, word usage, and story structure.

Read widely, both inside and outside your genre, fiction and non-fiction. Dissect the fiction to see how the author did it. How sentences are structured, how dialogue is done, and how the book itself is structured.

Do you read any of your own work?

Once in a while I will read a page or two to see if it still holds up, but generally, no.

Do your novels carry a message?

Yes, otherwise there’s no point to it. What that message is depends on the reader. I think a lot of the message comes from the subconscious. I often think about what I’ve written and what it means, and it sometimes means more than I realized.

How much of yourself do you put into your books?

Everyone who knows me and have read my books hear me and see me in them. If you want to know who and what I am, read my books.

Have you ever incorporated something that happened to you in real life into your novels?

Of course. It’s difficult to make things up out of thin air, so about everything you write about has to do directly or indirectly with your own experience. For example, at the beginning of “A Beast in Venice,” the character has trouble getting the bartender to make a proper martini. That was based on an experience I actually had in Venice.

I read that one of the reasons Hemingway killed himself was because the shock therapy erased a lot of his memory. He no longer had anything to write about.

What books have influenced your life the most?

“A Clockwork Orange,” by Anthony Burgess; “And the Ass Saw the Angel,” by Nick Cave. Both authors are masters of the language.

How active are you on social media? And how do you think it affects the way you write?

I have all the usual things. Twitter: @TheDarkNovelist; FaceBook: facebook.com/michael.henderson.novelist.com.

I don’t think it’s changed how I write. Actually, they are a huge waste of time.

Do you have a muse?

No. There’s no such thing.

Is it true that anyone can be a writer?

Anyone can learn the craft and then write a decent book. The key word is “craft.” If you haven’t learned the craft, you can’t be a writer. Writing a book, though, is very tough. So, I suppose that people who don’t like to work hard for very little return would succeed (whatever that means).

Do you prefer being intoxicated to write? Or would you rather write sober?

I find that a martini helps grease the skids, but you can’t write drunk.

Were any of your books rejected by publishers or agents?

All of my books have been rejected dozens of times. “A Beast in Venice” did find a small publisher, but rejection is the norm.

They say books die every time they are turned into a movie. What do you think?

I think it’s the opposite. Consider the books that have been made into movies. How many of them would have heard of if not for the movie?

Are all writers rich?

No. Most writers don’t have two nickels to rub together. There’s no money in writing.

How did it feel when your first book got published?

It felt pretty good. It showed that someone else thought it was good.

Have you ever written a story you wish you hadn’t?

Yes. I tore it up (I wrote it on a typewriter).

Which of your novels best describes you as a person?

“Self-Portrait of a Dying Man,” but all my books are really about me.

What do you do if an editor wants a change with which you disagree?

It takes a while to get used to having your work edited, because you tend to view it as negative criticism. When the editor suggests something you don’t like, you point out why you did what you did, and maybe you win the point, and maybe you don’t. In the end, the editor wins and is usually right.

Tell us about an interesting or memorable encounter you had with a fan?

A young man came to Venice with a copy of “A Beast in Venice” and wanted me to sign it. We got together and had a great time. The following year he came back to Venice and I ran into him by chance in the street. That was kinda cool.

How do you think e-books have changed the present or future of reading?

An e-book is just the medium of delivery. They make it more convenient to take books with you when you travel, but they haven’t changed reading. They have changed how we read, and how we get books.

How long do you take to write a book?

Usually about a year to a year and a half. I would like to speed that up.

How do you incorporate the noise around you into the story you are writing?

I can’t write with noise.

Do you blog?

Yes. http://michaelhendersonnovelist.com/michaelhender

Where do you get your ideas?

It could be something I see or hear, something in the news, or something I read. Sometimes it’s just a tiny little thing that gives rise to an idea. For example, I got the idea for “A Beast in Venice” from an article I read where they had discovered a skeleton in a grave full of plague victims in Venice, where the skeleton had a brick stuck in its mouth. The Venetians did that because they thought that corpse was eating the other corpses, and would rise from the grave as a vampire.

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