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: