This is an interview with J. Michael Major, author of the unique crime novel One Man’s Castle. Joseph Arellano
In One Man’s Castle, you wrote a novel based upon a fascinating premise: A man kills people, but only criminals who break into his home. How did you come up with this idea for the plotline?
It was a short story first. Like most of my ideas, it was a combination of something I read or saw on the news combined with a “What if?” twist. What could be another reason bodies are buried in a crawlspace? And what is something personal that would make a person do this instead of calling the police? The characters stayed in my head even after the story was published, and several writer-friends encouraged me to expand it into a novel.
As I read Castle, I was sure that I knew exactly where the story was going. I believed the story was going to conclude with an O.J. Simpson style trial. But that’s not where the story went. Did you have the ending planned out all along, or did the story just happen to take the path it did?
I’m glad I surprised you! Yes, it was all pre-planned. I am an outliner, even for short stories, and the core was already there. After years of cut-cut for stories, the hard part was learning how to expand the idea without making it feel padded. The novel gave me the freedom to show how Riehle and Capparelli initially met, get to know the backstory on Walter’s wife so the reader would care more, and explore Walter’s conflict in wanting justice for his wife’s murder without having to pay more of a price himself.
I describe the novel as “Death Wish meets The Fugitive,” and I had to figure out how to structure Castle to keep the tension and conflict while the reader was (hopefully) rooting for both Walter to get away and the police to catch him. So, yes, I had to know where the story was going at all times.
Speaking of the end of the novel, I was reminded of Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow and Defending Jacob by William Landy. Were these legal novels influences on you?
Absolutely! In fact, Presumed Innocent is one of my favorite novels of all time, so I am incredibly flattered that my novel reminded you of it. Thanks!
Most criminal justice system related novels are written by lawyers. How did you, as a dentist, decide to tackle a legal novel?
I saw it more as a crime novel with legal issues, which allowed me to focus on the definition of the crime and its consequences, rather than having to follow strict legal structure. But mostly, it was just the story that I wanted to tell. “Write what you want to read” rather than “Write what you know.”
What steps did you take to research the criminal justice system to ensure that your novel was reasonably accurate and representative of the justice system?
In addition to friends, relatives and patients who were police officers, I also talked with a couple of lawyers in the State’s Attorney’s Office and Attorney General’s office. They not only answered my questions, but read early drafts of the novel and made helpful suggestions and corrections. I am very grateful for their time and patience with me.
If you could press the reset button on your life is there something you would change?
Who wouldn’t want to go back and un-say/un-do some things, or do something you later regretted that you hadn’t? But the truth is, I love my wife of 25+ years and I am so proud of the wonderful people that my son and daughter are, that I would not want to go back and jeopardize losing what I have with them. Still, if I had to change anything, I would go back to when my children were younger and find a way to spend more time with them. Though I was an involved father, they grew up so fast! Where did the time go?
As with many legal novels, One Man’s Castle is in some sense a critique of the existing criminal justice system. If you were made King of the Courts, is there something you would change about the system?
I would get rid of, or greatly reduce, the continued victimization of the victims. While I understand the need for someone to be able to defend himself/herself against false accusations, the victims and their family and friends should not have to suffer through the torture and shaming they must endure during trials. This seems like common sense and decency, but common sense and the law seem to follow non-intersecting paths these days.
Will your next novel be in the same vein? Would you give us a preview of it in two or three sentences?
Sadly, when my publishing company decided that it was not going to publish mystery novels anymore, I had to scrap plans for sequels to Castle using the same detectives. I wrote many short stories for a while, the most recent having been published in Weirdbook #34, until I got an idea for something different. I just started writing the story of a rookie cop who descends into a hardened, shadowy vigilante over the course of three books. I’m very excited about this project!
One final point, Carolyn Parkhurst stated, “The ending of a novel should feel inevitable. You, the reader, shouldn’t be able to see what’s coming.” I did not see the ending of One Man’s Castle coming, thus it passed her test. Great job. I certainly highly recommend the book. Do you have any final comments?
First, thank you for this terrific interview. Great questions! I am thrilled that you enjoyed the book and greatly appreciate your recommending it. Second, to all beginning writers, HANG IN THERE! Life throws you curve balls, but as long as you keep writing and submitting your stories, you will persevere. And read the screenwriting book Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder, because it will help you with structure and inspire you. Good luck!
This interview was originally posted on the Blogcritics site:
It was also used by the Seattle Post Intelligencer:
Sequels and Prequels
“If you introduce a character that’s already familiar to somebody they have a vested interest.” Sarah Bagby, managing partner of Watermark Books
One of the pleasurable facets of reading modern popular fiction is that once you discover an author (and it’s more likely to be a she than a he), you can read her earlier works and/or plan to read her future releases. Once we arrive at a place of comfort with an author, we hope and presume that we will feel the same about separate works by that writer. Generally each work will be separate, except when the author of fiction decides to create a series around a character, which is when we wind up with sequels and prequels.
The author who decides to extend a character’s life into a continuing series has a few minefields to deal with. One is that people like continuity until they get tired of it. Think of a new rock band with a successful initial CD. Let’s call this band the Purple Onion (PO). Everyone loved PO’s first album, Single Whammy, so when they release their follow-up album, Double Whammy, their fans are thrilled that it retains their “trademark sound.” But what happens when Triple Whammy is released? PO is then likely to be beaten up by both the critics and formerly rabid fans who say that they’ve become stuck in one place and have displayed little or no growth as musical artists. (If Triple Whammy sounds nothing like the first two CDs, they are likely to get hammered for a different reason – for arbitrarily changing their style.)
An author faces the same issues in building a series of novels around a single character. One example is Sarah Paretsky who has written for many years about the crusty Chicago-based detective V. I. Warshawsky. Paretsky was praised for writing several “V. I.” books until some critics felt that the lead character had changed too much in later novels. (Was V. I. getting soft?) Her latest effort in the series was praised for being more like the original “V. I.” books. Get back, V. I., back to where you once belonged!
So there’s a bend but do not break aspect to fashioning a lead character. He or she must stay the same yet must evolve and grow the way most humans do in their own lives. Suddenly the idea of hanging onto a main character doesn’t sound so easy, does it?
There’s also the fact that some readers may view the author as getting lazy, or feel that she/he is not challenging herself/himself enough. What does one get out of writing about the same character(s) all of the time, except maybe a relatively safe source of income? What about stretching oneself as an artist, a writer, by taking on new themes and styles? This tends to be a valid critique, but only to a point. That’s because authors like Richard Ford and John Updike wrote several books structured around a single character and both series were well-recognized with journalism’s highest awards.
The lesson here is that some skilled authors can write about the same character repeatedly and make it not only interesting but fascinating. The key word, though, is skill.
Novels in a continuing fictional series based on a lead character tend to be sequels, but on occasion a writer decides to fashion a prequel. This is a novel that deals with events that precede, rather than follow, the author’s introduction of a lead character. In my view, prequels are much harder to write well because the mind of the average reader does not deal well with a character’s pre-introduction life…
Let’s say that I read a novel featuring detective L. A. Jones. When I read the first book in which L. A. Jones appears he’s in his early forties. If I finish this book and pick up the second in the series eighteen months later, it does not bother me that L. A. is now in his mid to late-forties; this seems natural. But if I pick up the third book in the series and see that it deals with L. A. when he was a young man in his teens and twenties, it seems odd and hard to follow. The mind tends to ask, “Why did the author do this? I’m not interested in the character’s life before I knew (encountered) him!”
Yes, prequels can work in extending the life of a successful film or TV series, but that’s a bit different. Fans of Star Trek, for example, so desperately wanted the series to continue in some form that they eventually learned to accept a prequel version. But, when it comes to prequels in popular fiction, the words sung by Ringo Starr would seem to apply – “It don’t come easy.”
The take away point may be that an author who has developed a popular character would seem to have climbed on board the gravy train, and he/she would seem to be crazy to abandon that character. But the public is extremely fickle about characters they’ve come to know and love. These characters must stay the same while changing, but not too much so.
Perhaps the biggest issue, however, is with the author who fails to change his lead character enough. One of the most critical and deadly comments is one that can often be found at Amazon. It goes something like this, “I LOVED Joe Blow’s books about detective L. A. Jones and I bought every one! But this book, the 17th in the series, stinks! Joe Blow should have killed off detective Jones before now. Blow’s now writing on automatic pilot, and these books are now nothing if not repetitive and boring.”
A fan of an author can go from loyalist to attack dog in an instant. Woe to the author who creates a continuing character and lets that character over stay his/her welcome! Better to let the character leave the stage a bit too early rather than far too late.
Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review. This article is one in a continuing series.
Pictured: Innocent, the sequel to Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow; the sequel released 20 years after the original.
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