I first met Michael Guillebeau at Killer Nashville, where the manuscript for his first novel, Josh Whoever, was a top ten finalist for the Claymore Awards. That book was published by Five Star Mysteries in 2013 and received a starred review from Library Journal, was named a Mystery Debut of the Month by them, and was a finalist for that year’s Silver Falchion Award.
I’m happy to say I saw it coming. Michael has a quirky wit and a fresh way with words. He’s not only a fine storyteller but a masterful wordsmith. His short story, “The Man in the Moon,” which you can read for free in our collection Eight Mystery Writers You Should be Reading Now, is so poignant and beautiful it gave me chills when I first read it in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.
Michael’s upcoming release, MAD Librarian, is about a librarian determined to fund her library by any means necessary–even if it means leaving a trail of thefts and bodies in her wake. In the process of writing it, he realized how little support our libraries get and decided to do something about it. You can read about his writing and his new “Mad Librarian” project in this interview.
Jaden: Mike, you and I have been writing buddies for a long time. What’s the weirdest part of the writer experience for you?
Mike: (laughs) All of it. You get paid for drinking coffee, staring out the window and lying. When I did those things in the fifth grade, I got to stare at the corner a lot. Maybe that’s where I picked up the habit of living inside my head.
Seriously, I think the most overlooked part of being a writer is this: you can’t be a writer by doing writer things. I think most of us wanted to be writers so we could be famous and give interviews and maybe wear a beret.
And—except for the beret—that is a lot of what being a successful writer is about. Unless you want to write great stories and keep them in your desk drawer, you have to spend a lot of time marketing and publicizing and networking and…
But that has nothing to do with writing. Writing is sitting alone in a room with the characters in your head demanding to get out, and your doubts demanding that they stay in. Elmore Leonard and Ray Bradbury both said that they had to write a million words before they knew how to write. If you don’t kill the “writer,” at least sometimes, you’ll never get past the first hundred, much less a million.
Jaden: OK, so how do you get the writer and the writing to play nice?
Mike: Damned if I know. I am the poster child for failure in that department. I wrote my first four books over a two-year period, and sold three of them, all the while juggling writing things and writer things. I retired, knowing I would now write a lot faster. But my writer’s head had swelled to the point where it couldn’t get back into my writing room. Nothing worked until I was stopped short one day, reading a book on marketing from Tim Grahl, who is the guru of book marketing and a great friend. The first line of his book said, “None of this works unless you really believe that everyone should buy your book.”
I pushed back from my now-dusty writing desk and stared at my trophy rack of published books for a long time. There was a funny book about the meaning of heroism and honesty that Library Journal named a Mystery Debut of the Month. You should read it if you’re a point in your life where you feel like crawling into a closet and staying drunk (my POV starts there). Two other books that I can recommend for different people.
But nothing that I wanted to run out in the street and demand that people read.
Jaden: I can completely identify with that. But deciding on the front end that you’re trying to write a masterpiece is the surest way I know of to block your writing. What did you do?
Mike: You’re exactly right, Beth. My tagline on a couple of writing forums before that was “Writing crap every day” and I would really recommend that. Write crap, look at it later and be surprised.
But that’s not where I was. I wanted to do something better—much better. I was willing to do much worse if I failed, but I wasn’t willing to do the same old thing. It took me three hard years of getting up every day and struggling with two books that I wrote together. It was enormously inefficient—I had to write 180,000 words on MAD Librarian to get a 70,000 word book. But it’s done now, and I’m proud of it. MAD Librarian is a mostly-light-somewhat-noir book about a librarian who has to steal and kill to make her library great. It’s a fun, emotional read, but anyone who reads it will have a deeper understanding of what’s going on in our neglected libraries, and what libraries could do with more support. Because of what I learned, and the heroes I saw in libraries every day, half of all my income from this book are going to a small fund I’m starting at madlibrarian.org to get money to librarians.
Jaden: What a great idea. It sounds like this has been a real journey for you, too.
Mike: Yeah. Some readers think we control our characters. Writers know that your characters own you and haunt you until you get their story down on the page, and get it right. Throughout the last three years, every morning I’ve stared at a cover mockup with the single word MAD on it in big red letters. And every word I wrote, even the funny ones, is angry-mad. And, by the end, like my librarian, I think I was a little crazy-mad. And enthusiastic-mad for all of you to see this baby.
Jaden: I can’t wait. Your books are always a treat.
Readers, if you’d like to know more about Michael and his work, check out his website at http://michaelguillebeau.com.