- When did it dawn upon you that you wanted to be a writer?
That’s an interesting question. I had to write in high school and college. I was a liberal arts major, and all my assignments and exams required me to write out original answers that made sense. There was no regurgitating back a canned answer. There were no multiple-choice questions or calculations based on a permanent formula. I had to be creative and constructive with my answers. That’s where it began. Then I went to law school and learned legal writing, which is a very different form of writing in many ways. It’s very structured and can sometimes lead to the opposite of creativity. But I didn’t begin to become a serious writer until I was an appellate attorney in the Marine Corps. These were high stakes – practicing, writing, and arguing in front of the appellate courts in Washington, DC, and I very quickly realized I had to get much better. In the three years I was there, I wrote over 200 appellate briefs and refined my style. I learned to cut out everything that wasn’t necessary and get to the point, to be succinct. I learned a lot from that experience. I came out of that tour a much better writer, and many of the things I learned there translated well to my creative writing career. That was probably the first time I thought maybe I could become a professional writer.
- What inspires you to write?
It just sort of comes out of the blue most times. I think creative writing is another art form, like painting, or playing music. I compare it to music. For instance, I think most writers are like people who become professional musicians; they spend a lot of time working on material before they ever publish anything. By the time they are ready to publish for the first time, they already have a good supply of stories and songs, and that makes the first few books or albums easy to put out because the material is already there. The challenge becomes what you do to continue coming up with new stuff. You see this with some first-time writers or bands who are very successful with their debut or first couple releases, but then they drop off the radar. It’s tough to keep coming up with new material. But that’s when the creative process comes in. So to answer the question, these days I am inspired to write when the inspiration hits me. I realize that’s sort of circular logic, but it’s the truth.
- Do you set a plot or prefer going wherever an idea takes you?
I love this question. I’ve heard that some writers literally prepare an entire outline for their novels. That’s the opposite of creative. I don’t do that. I have a general idea of what the story is about, and I usually just let it go where it takes me. But I would agree that if someone is writing a long novel, it’s hard to do that for 80,000 words. This is a problem with modern-day publishing houses. They want manuscripts around 80,000 words so they can charge the consumer twenty-five dollars for the hardbound book at Amazon or Barnes and Noble. The problem is, even the best-selling 80,000-plus word books have big parts of them that are boring and tedious to get through. For instance, I loved Tom Clancy’s books, but there were several of his later novels where I got 20,000 words into the books and wondered when the real story was going to start. Why is it like this? Because the author has to fluff the plot out in order to reach the publisher’s requisite word count, which these days is that 80,000-word mark. You see this today with many well-known authors. Some of their novels are really good and some of them are just not that good. That’s because they are shackled with this random word-count requirement. This is why I enjoy writing short stories and novella-length pieces that are much shorter and easy to complete. Some of the greatest books in history are very short.
- What, according to you, is the hardest thing about writing?
Pushing through “writer’s block.” There are periods where you can’t think of anything to write about and you feel burned out. You feel like you’ve written everything you can write. But it eventually passes. You have to just put it away for a while until that inspiration comes.
- What would you say is the easiest aspect of writing?
The easiest aspect of writing comes when that inspiration or motivation strikes you out of the blue. The words come freely and effortlessly. It’s one of the biggest joys of writing. You get into this zone, and when you’re done you look up and hours have passed. I call it a flurry of creativity. That’s a lot of fun.
- If you had the choice to rewrite any of your books, which one would it be and why?
I think I would rewrite my first book, Document, in a few spots only because it’s a little rough in places and perhaps a bit short compared with my second and third books. I look at some of those stories on occasion now and cringe a bit. As a general matter, I’ve always been very hard on myself, and that has translated over to my writing. Writers are very hard on themselves.
- Do you read and reply to the reviews and comments of your readers?
Yes. I always try to thank people who compliment my work and take the time to review it and offer comments. I’m always very gratified when a reader contacts me to tell me one of my stories affected them.
- What did you want to become when you were a kid?
At first, I wanted to be a professional athlete like my father was. There was a time I wanted to be an astronaut, because I grew up in Houston near NASA Mission Control and I developed this intense interest as a child in the space program. One of my childhood heroes was Neil Armstrong, and he still is. He was a guy who served his country in the Korean War by flying multiple combat missions, then became a test pilot, then an astronaut. He single-handedly saved Gemini 8 from certain disaster based simply on instinct and knowing the spacecraft systems better than anyone else, and he was the perfect selection to land the first mission on the moon. He accomplished the mission, then retired and went home to a farm in Ohio. He was perhaps the humblest of all the astronauts, and crewmate Buzz Aldrin called him the best pilot Aldrin had ever known, which says a lot coming from a fellow Apollo astronaut.
- Which book inspired you to begin writing?
If I had to select one, I think it would be the Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. As I said, some of the best books in literature are very short, and that book is only about 27,000 words. Like much of his work, the prose is very tight and minimalist. Hemingway wrote only what was needed to move the plot along, and that technique has had a huge influence on my own writing. As a writer, you don’t need to use a bunch of flowery fluff and unnecessary jargon to explain what is going on in the story. I think the best writers leave a lot to the reader’s imagination; let the reader fill in the gaps to form a picture in their own mind. I thought if Hemingway could write such a timeless story in only 27,000 words, why couldn’t I? That book showed me that you don’t have to trudge your way through an 80,000-word manuscript in order to write a good book or story. It opened my mind to the prospect that I might be able to do it myself. And I was right.
- Do you read any of your own work?
Not often. I think most writers would tell you that. We proof and reread drafts of our work so many times that it becomes tiresome. I’ve never read one of my books cover to cover after it was published because I have already done that several times during the proofing process. It’s extremely tedious work. And I almost always see something I would change. You always think you can write a better sentence.
- Tell us about your writing style, how is it different from other writers?
I try to take a minimalist approach. I use simple sentences that are concise and to the point. I save majestic and wordy phrases for poetry. I build paragraphs from a series of short and clear sentences. Some peers and reviewers have said my work looks like a series of clipped, military dispatches, and that’s probably right. There’s nothing more tedious and boring than reading something that is long and wordy and going all over the place into topics or places that are irrelevant to the overall plot. So I try to avoid that. No reader should have to reread a sentence or a paragraph to understand it because the author meandered all over the place.
- Do your novels carry a message?
If I had to mention one message, I guess it would be to open your mind. I try through my writing to expand people’s perspective on life and on the current issues we are all dealing with. Whether trying to educate the reader on what it’s like to serve in the military so that they have a better understanding of our veterans or on a very hot-button topic like mass shootings for instance, I try to address every side of an argument. People are so misinformed these days because they don’t take the time to properly educate themselves on the issues before making sweeping generalizations and immediately diving into a vitriolic argument with someone who disagrees with them. We’ve gotten lazy in the art of debate and courtesy, and I think this is one reason our nation is so polarized right now.
- How much of yourself do you put into your books?
A lot. As I’ve said elsewhere, most stories I write are based in some respect on something that I’ve experienced. I think it would be incredibly difficult to come up with a fictional story out of whole cloth. I think it was Hemingway who said something like, “Write what you know.” That’s what I do. I use my life experiences to form my stories. It would be very difficult for me to write a fictional story about a subject I know nothing about.
- Is there anything you are currently working on that may intrigue the interest of your readers?
I am working on my first full-length novel about a federal prosecutor who works in a federal territory outside the continental United States, sort of off the beaten path. I am also putting together a book of new stories based on my military service during the War on Terror. But these are both works in progress, and I have no idea yet when I will publish them.
- Who are your books mostly dedicated to?
My family. I dedicated my first book Document to my mother and my wife. I dedicated the second book Cloudbreak to my sons. And I dedicated my third book Crossroads to my late father.
- Who is the most supportive of your writing in your family?
My wife and my mother, without a doubt.
- Do you have a day job other than being a writer? And do you like it?
I’ve been an attorney for 25 years and a Marine officer and lawyer for 22. Both professions have provided me with multiple topics to write about. I enjoy both. But I also enjoy taking a break from both.
- Does your day job ever get in the way of your writing?
No. I make time for writing after work hours if the urge hits me.
- Do you have a daily habit of writing?
No. I don’t follow the “write every day no matter what” maxim. I think if you force it, the product is no good. I write when the inspiration hits me.
- How do you see writing? As a hobby or a passion?
Definitely a passion. A hobby is something you are not too serious about. I am serious about my writing. When the muse strikes me, I can write for hours and it feels like very little time has gone by. It’s like getting into what people call “the zone.”
- People believe that being a published author is glamorous, is that true?
No. But it is very satisfying to have one of your books published. It’s a nice feeling of accomplishment.
- Do you like traveling or do you prefer staying indoors?
I love to travel. I get restless and stagnated if I stay indoors too long. And I prefer driving. You’re in total control of your time and destiny when you are driving. That’s not the case with air travel, which I have come to dislike intensely these days. The domestic carriers basically have a monopoly between three major airlines, and they’ve ruined what used to be an exciting adventure.
- Which of your books took you the most time to write?
My third book Crossroads took by far the most time to complete. It’s my longest book of the three, and it took about eighteen months to finish. I had a lot going on, and some of the stories were very difficult to complete.
- Whose work do you enjoy reading the most?
My favorite fiction writers are Pat Conroy, Carl Hiaasen, Cormac McCarthy, and Hemingway. As for non-fiction, I love everything David McCullough puts out. I also read everything Hampton Sides writes.
- Now when you look back at your past, do you feel accomplished?
Sure. I’ve been blessed to have experienced a lot of things. I was a Division 1 scholarship athlete in football and baseball; I went to law school, graduated and became a lawyer. Then the United States Marine Corps gave me the privilege of earning a commission as an officer, which was the most challenging and grueling thing I’ve ever been through. I’ve served on active duty and as a reservist for 22 years now, and it has been the most-rewarding experience of my professional life. And I had the opportunity to serve as a federal prosecutor for the Department of Justice. With respect to writing, I never started writing to make money. I did it because it was a lifelong goal. If one of my books were to explode and make me a lot of money of course that would a nice collateral result. But I write to create and put my thoughts out there. I look at my three books as a big, 230,000-word journal I can leave my two boys that might help them understand how their father looked at things; maybe they’ll understand me better.
- What do you do in your free time?
I have a diverse group of pursuits. I’m a former college athlete and I need to stay active. I run a lot, travel, hike, surf, kayak, and go to the gym like a lot of folks. I try to read as much as I can because I see reading as a lost pastime. I heard another writer say, “I’m a writer in a world that no longer reads,” and I agree with that sentiment. The internet and social media, as great of a development as those have been, have had a negative effect on how much people read now. I think the world would be a better place today if people spent less time on things like Twitter, for instance, and more time reading books.
- Given the chance to live your life again, what would you change about yourself?
Nothing much. I have very few regrets. Of course there are individual events that I wish I would’ve handled differently and I’ve done things I’m not proud of. I wish I would have been less intense about life in general when I was younger. But maybe that intensity helped get me to where I am now. I try not to beat myself up too much. None of us are perfect.
- How did it feel when your first book got published?
It was a great feeling of accomplishment and reaching a long-time goal. There was a lot of satisfaction there. And it’s a neat experience to go into a bookstore in some random city or town and find your book on the shelves. That’s very cool.
- What is your motivation for writing more?
I have a lot more to say, and writing is a challenge. It’s a craft and an art that you never perfect. So that’s what keeps me motivated.
- Which of your novels best describes you as a person?
That’s hard to say. I’d say there are many stories in my books that spring from firsthand experience. I think there’s a lot of me in all three of my books.
- Have you ever written a character based on the real you in some part?
Absolutely. But I am keeping the exact titles of those to myself. (Laughs). Sometimes someone in the extended family or a friend will ask me if a specific story is real or if I was there. And I just shrug, smile, and say, “Oh, I don’t know.” So that’s fun too.
- Can you tell us about your current projects?
I’m working on a collection of stories and dispatches about military service in the War on Terror, that is, the various military operations our nation has been fighting since September 11, 2001. I’m also working on my first, full-length novel.
- When can the readers expect your next book in print?
That’s difficult to answer. I adhered to a pretty strict timeline with my first three books. This time I am going to take my time and enjoy the process as much as possible.
- You don’t have to be a writer in order to be an author – how true is that?
You don’t have to be published to be a writer. Writing is an art form, it’s not science or mathematics. There are incredible writers out there who never get published and there are people who manage to get published who aren’t good writers. I don’t mean this as a criticism of anyone, but book publishing is an arcane process that needs to be modernized. Getting a book published the traditional way by a big publishing house is a random thing that depends on the whims of agents and editors and a lot of luck. That’s one reason I have published independently and started my own publishing company.
- Which book is the one you keep going back to again and again?
There are two. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by Jon Berendt, and My Losing Season by Pat Conroy. Conroy’s book about his last year in college and senior season on the Citadel basketball team, in which they had a losing record, is very similar to what I experienced in my final season playing football at the University of Arkansas. So many of the themes he hits in that book resonate with me because I went through the very same things in my own experience. It’s a very poignant book, his only non-fiction novel, and maybe his most underrated work. His main point is that we learn much more from loss than victory, and he’s absolutely correct.
- Is today’s generation more aware of the literary art or less?
I have to say less. This is a result of the internet, social media, and a general decrease by schools and universities in advocating the classics and liberal arts. Compare, say, my generation with the current one. When I was a kid growing up in the 1970s and 80s, there was no internet, no social media like Facebook, Twitter, whatever. There were no desktop computers until I was in college. When you wanted knowledge or information, you had to go to the library. This was an actual building. It was filled from wall to wall and floor to ceiling with books and encyclopedias. You had to go to the “card catalog,” which was this huge sort of filing cabinet that contained tens of thousands of little note cards with decimal numbers on them and tediously flip through the drawers until you found the book you were looking for. Then you had to locate the book in the shelves and hope it was still there and nobody had checked it out. This is how you found knowledge back then. You read books. Today that’s all gone. The information age has resulted in a massive decline in reading books. People gain their information now online, and much of it is unreliable or even outright false. So that’s a long way of saying, yes; today’s generation has very little education or understanding of literature, and what “understanding” they do have is based solely on what their teacher or instructor tells them. And I personally believe there’s a direct correlation between all of this and how much our society has devolved in terms of civility, tolerance, courtesy, and respect for our fellow citizens.
- Do you have specific culture you like to write about?
I write a lot about veterans’ issues and military service.
- Is privacy an issue for you?
Yes. In terms of online privacy, I think there are serious concerns with the security of personal information. We see it almost every week where another organization has allowed people’s personal, private information to be hacked or stolen. And despite their claims to the contrary, these organizations are directly responsible for giving away personal information. Why do you think you get unsolicited mail, email, or phone calls on an almost daily basis? These people got your address, email address, or phone number from someone else who told you they would keep it private and secure.
- Do you plan on owning a publishing house?
In 2017, I started my own publishing company, Loch Lomond Publishing. I published my third book Crossroads under the Loch Lomond banner. It was nice moment.
- How do you think concepts such as Kindle, and e-books have changed the present or future of reading?
I think it has been great for authors and readers. It makes reading so much more convenient, and it helps new authors get their names out there more easily. Although I’m sure it has hurt hard-cover book stores, Kindle and similar platforms make it easier for people to find the product they want – in most cases cheaper than the bound version – and they can start reading it much faster.
- Do you encourage your children to read?
Absolutely. Like I said, we live in a society that increasingly does not read, except for the internet. Reading real books puts you ahead of most people, in my view.
- Do you have a library at home?
I suppose you could call it that. We have bookshelves everywhere filled with books of all kinds of subjects and genres, half of which I haven’t even read yet, it seems. I have an affliction for buying books and not being able to get to them.
- If you were given a teaching opportunity, would you accept it?
If it was the right job at the right place, I’d do it in a heartbeat.
- Do you mentor?
Sure. I have other writers and friends who ask me to read and review their work and offer suggestions. I am happy to do that because it gives me an opportunity to do something other than constantly proof read my own stuff.
- Which literary character do you most resonate with on a personal level?
There’s a guy named George Webber in Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again. Webber is a fledgling author who has just published his first novel to widespread critical success and acclaim, a story based loosely on his hometown (“Libya Hill” in the book, based on Asheville) and its residents. But when Webber returns to the insular and narrow-minded Libya Hill, he is greeted with outrage by its citizens who feel he has betrayed them with his depictions of them. Shocked and unwelcome, Webber leaves Libya Hill and sets out on a search for identity beyond the narrow confines of what his former friends and fellow citizens of Libya Hill would place on him. He resonates with me because I agree; you truly can’t go home again. But it’s not necessarily “home” you long for; it’s that feeling of “home” you had at some earlier point in your life. And you get to a point where look around and realize the closest thing to that feeling you remember is the feeling you get when you are experiencing something new, or something you’ve done many times, but that you never get tired of. These things provide a portal back to that feeling you had; not necessarily a place or experience, just a feeling; the feeling you had when everything was new and exciting and your physical and mental faculties were fully and completely engaged. That time when you were learning, living, and experiencing things for the first time. As Wolfe’s character George Webber says in You Can’t Go Home Again: “You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time — back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.” But I have learned that one can, indeed, recapture and go back to that feeling.
- If you could live anywhere in the world, which country would you choose and why?
Well that seems to be the refrain of the day with so many Americans acting like they are moving away from the United States because they don’t like this or that president or political party being in office. The truth is you can’t just get up and move to another country. They all have very strict immigration policies. I’ve actually spent a lot of time researching it. And the United States is actually one of the only countries that allow just about anyone to become a naturalized citizen without attaching conditions to it. No other country allows you to just become a naturalized citizen. But if I could choose, I’d pick a place down in the Caribbean, like the Cayman Islands, the Turks and Caicos, or Barbados. I also like Ireland very much. Some of my ancestors were Irish, and the Irish people are some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met.
- Have you ever turned a dream or a nightmare into a written piece?
Yes, there are several. The first that comes to mind is a short story called The Department, which appears in my third book, Crossroads. That story is based directly on a dream that was so detailed it sort of surprised me, because I don’t usually remember my dreams when I wake up in the morning. This one, however, I recalled with total clarity. So I wrote the story the same morning after I had the dream.
- Which character(s), created by you, do you consider as your masterpiece(s)?
Oh I don’t consider any of my characters to be “masterpieces.” But I do have some favorites. There’s a guy named Neil Dalton who continuously appears in many stories and who has a wide and diverse set of experiences. He’s a former Division 1 football player, Marine officer, federal prosecutor, and defense attorney. There’s another guy with no name who serves as a special forces type of expert; they call on him when nobody else can get the job done. And my wife and I created a character for a new story in Crossroads who was based on a guy we saw at a hotel bar on Waikiki while we were there on vacation. We just made the character up out of whole cloth as we sat there and watched him. That was a lot of fun. What I like about this is I use these recurring characters in multiple stories. This is something I learned from Tom Clancy, who created characters in his early novels and then went back to them over and over again in his subsequent books; characters like John Clark, the former Navy SEAL who appears in several Clancy novels, and even has one in which he is the main protagonist, Without Remorse. This technique allows the author to continue writing new stories without having to constantly come up with new characters.