Thursday, May 30, 2024

An Interview With G. Miki Hayden, Author of Dry Bones

 G. Miki Hayden started her working life as a computer programmer before beginning her true career as a business journalist writing on subjects from computers to factory automation and robotics to health care. Her first novel, Pacific Empire, was on the NYTimes Summer Reading List the year it came out. She has published several novels since; one of her short stories won an Edgar Award. She taught classes online at Writer's Digest for many years and currently works as a free-lance editor.


Her new book is Dry Bones. I have things to say about it, but who better to tell you about it than Miki?


One Bite at a Time: Welcome to the blog, Miki. To begin with, as I started to read your police procedural, I did a little digging into the setting, Holder, Oklahoma, and found it to be a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. I’ll allow you the pleasure of describing the place and how you came to set Dry Bones in it.


G. Miki Hayden: A while back, I read that crime fiction editors thought too many novels were set in New York City. Certainly, a lot of crime novels have been set here—as well as California and Florida—and I have a suspense adventure set in Florida coming out from the same publisher, Down & Out Books—next year.


So, I took that comment to heart and decided to work on a regional. Why Oklahoma? Everyplace is interesting, and as I looked into Oklahoma, I found a number of points of special interest—the sizable Native American population, a Black populace that crossed the country after the Civil War and created Black towns and areas in Oklahoma, the oil drilling industry, and the intense climate, to mention a few.


Then, I followed the example of Ed McBain (Evan Hunter), the author of the 87th Precinct police procedurals, and went into not one but several distinct crimes. And just like McBain’s Isola, Holder, Oklahoma, too, is a made-up place—though Isola is largely based on New York City. Holder is thus not a place I actually know, but I continue to research Oklahoma as a wider location, and I will write another procedural set in Holder and with my same protagonist.


OBAAT: Speaking of which, Aaron Clement is not your typical Oklahoma lawman. Tell us a little about him and what makes him unique.


GMH: To begin with, Clement is smart, and he has his own ideas as to how to do the job. He’s a decent guy and wants justice, real justice for all, whatever that takes. And because he has been in this department for a number of years, he knows the people and he knows how to get around the way things are. He knows who to take to lunch for information. And he’s very aware of what the old regime was like, since his father was something of a dishonest cop in this very department. Clement doesn’t want to be the casual, suit-yourself, kind of officer that his father was, but on the other hand, he might not care to do everything by the book. If following the preferences of, say the prosecuting class, seems wrong, he might skirt around their demands.


OBAAT: As someone who writes procedurals set in a small city, I appreciate how well you create a rural police department. What did you draw upon to build such a vivid entity?


GMH: Thank you!

I actually feel that I developed a knowledge base over many years from three great sources.

Firstly, I had the real pleasure of attending the NYPD Citizens Academy, which I don’t know if they offer anymore. At the time I attended, this series of classes was given in Manhattan at the actual police academy near where I lived. Our instructors and the structure of the class really made this a lot of fun. For instance, we had some acting out of scenarios, such as dealing with a couple fighting to the degree that the police had to be called in. How would a trained officer handle that situation—we or our fellow students were helped to act that out on stage. Also, how would officers perform a traffic stop, or deal with an emotionally disturbed person—both very fraught situations. What were the laws regarding pursuing a fleeing felon, and so on. I took tons of notes and really enjoyed the weeks of classes. We students all showed our appreciation with hearty enthusiasm at our graduation. People loved the program.


Source two of my knowledge of policing came from participation in Mystery Writers of America over many years of monthly dinner meetings and talks by a range of subject experts, such as a forensic anthropologist, a cold case police investigator, a financial fraud investigator, and so on. These then were enjoyable and educational events with food—what could be better? Also, as a result of belonging to the NYC chapter of MWA, I was one of a group who went to Sing Sing prison with our member Judge Andy Peck. Yes, prison was fascinating, and I know why they call Sing Sing the slammer—it’s really noisy when the iron gates slam shut. We MWAers also had the opportunity to go to Connecticut to a shooting range, the only time in my life I ever shot a gun. I wrote articles about the talks and events, and in that way put a lot of what I learned to good use.


Source three of my crime fighting understanding was also great for me. I worked as a business journalist, and at one time I wrote a newsletter entitled Corporate Security, for which purpose I joined the American Society for Industrial Security and learned a lot of other cool things at conferences and special programs. What might be the job of an executive protection specialist, and what did practitioners have to be aware of? What’s the difference between interviewing and interrogating? What are some martial arts basics that might be used? I went to the ASIS lunch meetings and events and hobnobbed with the former FBI and upper-level police officers who worked as corporate security managers and directors. A lot of this, too, went toward some novels I wrote and placed with a publisher for real money, also satisfying.


Of course, we’re all aware in our world of many of the ins and outs of policing—we watch TV. I keep my ears open constantly for new technology as well as new forms of criminality, since the bad guys are also inventing new types of crimes from low level ones, such as stealing from seemingly safe street mailboxes, to new wrinkles in international trafficking of drugs and humans.


OBAAT: Dry Bones weaves three mysteries, one of which is a cold case, in with some personal matters. The stories are complex without becoming confusing, no mean feat. This leads me to a question I often wonder about: Do you outline or fly by the seat of your pants?

GMH: Thank you!


I outline, but not all at once. Luckily, I have so much to do in working with students and clients that I can’t write every day. So, I go over scenes in my mind any number of times before I start to actually put them down. The scenes change and then come out the way they come out. I’m not one of those people color-coding sequences in their exact places before writing. I know the scenes and the characters, but I like to be flexible.


OBAAT: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?

GMH: I pretty much write as the scenes and story will eventually come out. I don’t change much—although I do improve the wording/phrasing to some extent.


OBAAT: Who are your major influences and what has their influence been? Can be writers, TV shows, movies, whatever has helped to shape your work.

GMH: I mentioned Ed McBain/Evan Hunter, but actually I never read him extensively, though I refer to his choices to validate my own. What I discovered, though, from reading Nelson DeMille’s Cathedral was that explosive openings work really well—and from reading Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko novels that a bold protagonist can be thrilling. I would say those two writers influenced me.


OBAAT: The unavoidable last question: What’s next?

GMH: I’m working on book three of my Rebirth series. Though these aren’t crime novels, I can’t escape the draw of crime because crime is effective. Book one, Rescued, focuses, at the start, on six-year-old Jay Gardner who is being neglected, and indeed starved, by his stepmother with his father’s willful blindness. We know that Jay doesn’t die because this is his memoir. Jay is a genius and he makes friends, adults who rescue him, and he thrives to become a person of significance, a martial arts grandmaster and a university professor. Book two, Re-Live is another character’s book. Steven is a student of Jay’s, a martial artist, who is becoming a psychotherapist. Book three, Respiration, returns to Jay who is a man of greatness beset by elements in this world that will either take him down (not likely) or thrust him to his highest potential as he battles a yakuza gangster who wants to steal his power. As if.


And, of course, Clement will find himself in a book two, as yet untitled, but that will include a lot of the history of Oklahoma and some of the biggest crimes of the last century. First though next spring from Down and Out will be Political Alliances about some Florida bad guys and the good people who win the day. Yup, the good guys win.




Thursday, May 23, 2024

An Interview With Elizabeth Bruce, Author of Universally Adored and Other One Dollar Stories

 I have known Elizabeth Bruce longer than either of us probably cares to remember. A talented writer and remarkably generous person, Elizabeth never tires of promoting the work of other creative artists, regardless of their field. When she heard I was having trouble getting a bookstore to launch The Spread, she opened her home to me and a bunch of strangers. It was as enjoyable an event as I have ever had.

I could get into all the things she works on during what would be for her a typical week, but it’ll all come off better if you hear it from her.

One Bite at a Time: Welcome, Elizabeth. We’ve known each other more than twenty years now and I’ve been a fan of your writing since the first time I heard you read. What was your biggest takeaway from the workshop we shared with John McNally?

Elizabeth Bruce: Well, you're right, Dana, you and I've known each other now for 20 plus years now, since we were both in that remarkable Jenny McKean Moore Fiction Workshop at George Washington University with the incredible writer John McNally. John has written twelve or thirteen books, many works of fiction including The Book of Ralph: A Novel, which has a twentieth anniversary edition coming out soon, and story collections, Troublemakers, and The Fear of Everything, plus a thriller, The Pinned Butterfly. He’s also written fantastic books on the writing craft, including Vivid and Continuous which is for serious writers grappling with complex craft issues.

We were in the McNally workshop with a bunch of other terrific writers whose careers have really blossomed. Melanie S. Hatter is a fabulous writer who has several books of fiction out in the world as well as works in progress. She’s a fellow Washington Writer Publishing House author whose novel, The Color of My Soul, was the all-school read at a DC Public High School. Her recent novel, Malawi’s Sisters, published by Four Way Books, was the winner of the inaugural Kimbilio National Fiction Prize, judged by the esteemed Edwidge Danticat.

Carole Burns, who’s based in Cardiff in Wales, has several books out, including her award-winning debut novel, The Same Country. Nick Kocz, has published a huge number of short stories, as well as an Amazon bestselling thriller, I Will Never Leave You, under the pseudonym S.M. Thayer.  Lynn Stearns, who taught at the Writers’ Center for years, has published lots of stories and flash fictions. Plus, other fabulous writers Holly Johnson, Susanna Jech Paul, Gua Liang, Vineeta Anand, and the late Jim Munford, who was in his late 70s during the workshop and was also an award-winning photographer who had a beautiful exhibit at Rockefeller Center on The Bars of Hell’s Kitchen in New York in the 1950s.

John was a fabulous instructor. He really walked us through a bunch of issues of craft. One that I remember vividly was something I believe he called “the third element.” I've tried to track this term down, and I think it originates with the great writer Allan Gurganus, who’s best known for his novel, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.  Gurganus and John McNally, as well as Richard Bausch, are graduates of the Iowa Writer's Workshop, which literary folks know as sort of the gold standard of MFA Programs.

“The third element,” as I recall, is a deeper context of more mythic proportions that runs under a work of fiction. It’s like a literary Jungian collective unconscious—a more symbolic, more mythic resonance. It’s not something the writer can intentionally embed. It’s elusive; it surfaces on its own through this deeper cultural, almost ancestral knowledge.

As a proud English major, I was really struck by this “third element” as a quality that makes a work of literature endure.

John’s a really funny, jaded fellow, but he’s also incredibly generous. You and your lovely wife Corky, aka “The Beloved Spouse,” had beers with him down in Lafayette, Louisiana, where he’s a tenured professor at the University of Louisiana. And at your urging I reached out to him for a quote for my story collection, and he gave me the most beautiful quote:

“Elizabeth Bruce’s stories have that rare quality of feeling as though they have always existed, the way the best stories always do. In a lesser writer’s hands, the conceit of beginning each story with ‘one dollar’ might seem like a gimmick, but here they echo Wallace Stevens’ ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,’ and I found myself eager for what came next, curious to see how each new story amplifies the previous story while also diverging from it, often in dramatically different points of view and styles. These are exquisite short stories that give me hope.” John McNally


OBAAT: Your novel, And Silent Left the Place, is one of my favorite books. It’s a wonderful story with well-crafted characters that is beautifully written without letting the writing get in the way. What’s the origin story there?

EB: Oh Dana, thank you so much for your good words about my debut novel, And Silent Left the Place. As you well know, that novel was written over a long period of time and workshopped extensively in this wonderful writer's group that you and I and several writers from the McNally group, as well as Richard Bausch’s Heritage Writers Workshop at George Mason University had for a decade.

The origin story of this novel, probably like most novels, began with a first draft abandoned in despair. The first 300-page draft was really a coming-of-age story that came out of the short time I spent at the University of Texas at Austin in the early 1970s before I went back to college in Colorado. It was both a love story and an exploration of the anti-war movement during the Vietnam War, but it had this ever-expanding plot that I wasn’t skilled enough to handle.

I was also startled into putting aside that first draft after talking to an old friend in Boulder, the late Vic Traibush, a brilliant man and World War II veteran who used to play the blues with Leadbelly and was a master Go player. I bought a life insurance policy from him when I was 24, and he became a friend and confidant. We were walking down the Boulder Mall when I was there with my husband Michael and our then 2-year-old daughter Maya, and telling Vic all about the novel in progress, and he says, Oh, so it’s about you and your mother. And I was stunned. Oh my gosh, I thought, I thought I’d disguised all the personal references. I can’t be one more middle-aged woman writing about her lost youth.

So, when I got back to DC, I shelved the first draft, and focused instead on a minor character who was about as unlike me as possible. I zeroed in this old man who had popped up in the first draft at his gas station in the desert of South Texas—Thomas Riley. I started thinking more and more about this old man.

Riley is a traumatized 81-year-old World War One veteran who came back from the Great War middle-aged and silent. He can speak, but he doesn’t speak—not to people anyway. The mystery of the novel is why Thomas Riley doesn’t speak. Riley dug himself an underground room behind his gas station, and he goes there to speak to his beloved wife Dolores, who is absent but not dead. Riley is very loosely based on my maternal grandfather who was a World War I veteran. He lost an eye and endured who knows what other horrors of that brutal war. He was a very quiet man.

The book, set in April of 1963, takes place in the Texas desert miles above Laredo in a tiny fictitious town. The whole present action happens in one 24-hour period in which a young couple passing through trespasses on a wealthy rancher’s land. The young man is arrested, and the young woman runs off into the desert. A search for her ensues, led by old John Hopper, the Body Hunter who “combs the desert looking for the dead. Bodies felled by heat or thirst or the hands of man that strung them up on scrawny trees, the bizarre brown fruit of a barren land.”

It’s s a very short novel with a very spare, plain-spoken style. There are no four syllable words in it. It’s also a “polyphonic” novel, meaning each chapter is told from a different POV character. The late, great writer Lee K. Abbott, with whom I workshopped at the Rappahannock Fiction Writers’ Retreat, told me the novel has a “3rd Person Central Consciousness POV,” meaning that the tone of the authorial voice mirrors the voice of the POV character. I asked Lee if he would sign a little POV ID card that I could laminate and whip out whenever the POV Police pulled me over.

 Short as it, though, the novel has a lot of backstory about the horrors of World War One and the Vietnam War, about racial violence, and the cruel, dry land itself. It's a pretty brutal, short work, told in a Texas vernacular and drawing upon an invented tall Texas tale. But through a series of plot twists, the reader does eventually learn why Thomas Riley doesn’t speak.

 OBAAT: Speaking of origins, your new book is a collection of short stories, Universally Adored and Other One Dollar Stories. The unifying feature is every story begins with the words, “One dollar.” Aside from that, they might be about anything. Where did the “one dollar” concept come from?

EB: A lot of folks have asked me that, and the short answer is, I don’t exactly remember. I’m pretty sure, however, that it started in a generative writing workshop at the Writers on the Green Line series I co-produced for 13 years at CentroNĂ­a. It was a free, monthly, intergenerational workshop that had rotating facilitators, many of whom received small stipends from the Readings & Workshops Program of Poets & Writers. My late friend and colleague, the late, great Timothea Howard, and I launched the Green Line at CentroNia, and she, and my husband Robert Michael Oliver, and I anchored it for all those years. So many noted area poets & writers facilitated over the years—it’s an impressive list!

I started writing short pieces that each began with the words “one dollar,” and they were well received, so I kept writing them. I loved thinking of all the manifold ways the “universally adored” American dollar could factor into a character’s life. I had to keep shaking my imagination.

Sometimes the dollar is an “intimate object” and key plot device, and sometimes it’s a prop for some “stage business,” (meaning the ways in which an actor interacts with objects on stage). A friend of mine joked about how a lifelong anti-materialist like me (I’m freakily frugal) could end up writing an homage to the almighty dollar! I was thrilled and honored that our former teacher John McNally likened the repetitive theme to Wallace Steven’s iconic poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”

Michael wanted me to get fifty one-dollar stories so I could call the collection “Fifty Dollars,” but I never got that far. All but one of them have been published somewhere. I’ve been sending stories abroad for many years now, and have been published in the USA, as well as the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, South Korea, Israel, Sweden, Romania, Malawi, Yemen, and The Philippines.

OBAAT: The thirty-odd stories of Universally Adored Etc. are broken into five sections:

Couples; Parents and Children; Brothers and Sisters; Known Associates: and Gathered Loved Ones. Did you have this overarching structure in mind when you began the book, or did you have the stories written and realize these were reasonable groupings?

EB: Oh, thanks for both noticing this structure and asking about it. I didn’t have a particular structure in mind when I was writing them. But after I decided I had enough for a collection, I went through them a bunch of times to see what connective tissue there was beyond the one dollar opening line. I had lists of different “given circumstances”—to use a theatre term—in the different stories. You know, how many characters have dead mothers or failed relationships, what are the time periods they’re set in, should I order them chronologically, etc.

 What surfaced was the central relationship of the focal character. Couples are both straight and gay, married and not, young and old, etc. Parents and children include fathers and sons, mothers and sons, mothers and daughters, fathers and daughters. Siblings are of different configurations.

 The Known Associates section---I thought of you, Dana, as a hard-boiled crime writer with this category!—includes folks who hang out together for better or worse. This ranges from ex-cons to childhood best friends. Gathered Loved Ones includes folks with kinship ties that don’t fit the other categories, including the last story in the collection, “All Knowledge” in which the “gathered loved ones” are all the great books the bibliophile character has gathered.

 I must give a huge shout-out to my friend and fellow writer, David A. Taylor, who was in the inaugural Richard Bausch Heritage Workshop at George Mason University with me way back in 1999. David is a brilliant writer and documentary producer who’s written a number of books, including his The Soul of a People: The WPA Writers Project Uncovers Depression America, which was also a PBS documentary. He’s also a fellow Washington Writers’ Publishing House author; his beautiful collection, Success: Stories, was published the year after my debut novel.

Anyway, I leaned on David’s extremely generous nature to read the collection and ponder its structure. David had some great insights and thought of various ways to cluster the manuscript, but he too agreed that the central relationships worked best, though he suggested simplifying them into the current categories. David also suggested that I open the collection with the flash fiction, “Sweat,” that’s the love song of an aging blind woman to her late husband, and the ending story, “All Knowledge,” that’s a love song to great literature.

 I added one story (with the developmental editor’s blessing)—“Mouse Socks” (which had recently been published in Samjoko Magazine  in South Korea)--after the collection had been accepted for publication by the Athens, Greece-based independent, literary press Vine Leaves Press.

 I must say, I’ve had the most wonderful experience publishing with Vine Leaves Press. Everyone, from Publisher and Book Cover Designer Jessica Bell to Production Director Amie McCraken to Developmental Editor Melanie Faith. They have all been extraordinarily welcoming and exquisitely professional, and made my publishing journey a wonderful experience.


I’ll insert a quick plug for Vine Leaves Press’ current 2024 International Voices in Creative Nonfiction Competition that’s open until July 1, 2024.


OBAAT: I don’t want to provide ammunition for others in the “literary vs. genre fiction” debate, but I’ll confess I don’t read a lot of “literary” fiction. It’s not so much because, as some put it, “nothing happens,” but more because too many “literary” writers let the words get in the way of the storytelling, by which I mean they become preoccupied with the words and forget the words exist to tell the story, not to stand alone. You are truly a literary writer who crafts sentences as flowing and beautiful as any, yet you always manage to get them to serve the story and not come off as “look what a beautiful writer I am.” Is that something conscious on your part?

EB: Well, Dana, you are an incredibly prolific writer—you have like, ten books to every one of mine! —but we are both undeterred from examining the darker dimensions of the human condition. I’m assuming your readers know your work well—from the Nick Forte series to the Penns River series and beyond. They delve deeply into the recesses of the human heart and have intricate plots that move the action forward.

 My work is very short—even my debut novel is short—and these 33 stories are also very short. A number are “flash fiction,” meaning 1,000 words or fewer, though several are much longer.

 I’m delighted you find my work both accessible and “literary.” There are a lot of definitions of “literary fiction” out there, but mostly I think it means that the work is more character than plot driven.

In a lot of my fiction, I have a very spare writing style. I write primarily about forthright, regular folks with analog realities. I don’t tend to write about cerebral elites, with their neuroses and ruminations, witty and erudite though they may be.

 Perhaps most importantly, though, I don’t often write ironically—where the authorial voice holds itself apart from the characters or their narratives and comments on the world of the play with great cleverness and, in my view, judgement. Old school as it is, my heart is almost always with the characters. I’m rooting for their resilience more than chronicling their depravity or destruction. Which is not to say there’s no cruelty in the work; there’s a lot of brutality and hardship, and not everyone makes it. But more often my characters find a way to get through the day and find some respite.


Many of my stories are set in small communities, and often the characters speak or think in a vernacular from Texas or the South or West or the inner city. While the vocabulary I use is deceptively simple, everything I write is composed out loud. As a former character actor, I’m absolutely wedded to the cadence and rhythm of language. There are often extra words or long sentences that might look superfluous on the page, but if you read them aloud, you’ll hear the musicality of the voice.

 One of my all-time favorite lines, for example, comes from Chapter 1 of And Silent Left the Place. The highway patrolman coming off the graveyard shift remembers his father’s words: “You were raised on the parched flatness of south Texas where a man’s worth can be measured by the stillness of his shadow at sunset, and the liveliness of it at dawn.” The aforementioned great writer Lee K. Abbott loved that line, so I figured I was on to something.

 I have an author-read audiobook of Silent--which I invite all your readers to reach out to me for a copy--and I’m going to make an author-read version of Universally Adored, so stay tuned.

 But seriously, I’m thrilled that you like the collection, Dana. That is high praise!  I should warn your readers—though as your readers, I don’t imagine this is necessary---that a couple of the stories in Universally Adored & Other One Dollar Stories have a lot of profanity. A few folks have been put off by that language, but that’s just how those characters talk, so I figure either I don’t write about rough characters like these, or my readers just have to accept the roughness of their language.

 OBAAT: You and husband Michael Oliver do an entertaining and enlightening podcast called “Creativists in Dialogue.” How did that come about and how is it going?

EB: Yes, my esteemed husband and creative partner, Robert Michael Oliver, and I co-host and produce an audio podcast that we've been doing now for about a year and a half. It's called Creativists in Dialogue: A Podcast Embracing the Creative Life. It’s available for free on Substack at, though we’re thrilled, of course, with paid subscribers. We’ve been very fortunate to have some funding from both the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities and HumanitiesDC.

To date, we’ve interviewed 53 people, and posted weekly podcast episodes since January 2022.

Creativists in Dialogue was really born out of the long history of discourse Michael and I have had as creative partners for 41 years. Almost every day we have a conversation about some aspect of the human condition, current events, literature, etc. I’ve always been amazed by Michael’s ability to take in and synthesize so much complex information. He’s a theatre director, actor, playwright, novelist and poet, as well as a lifelong humanities and theatre educator, so he’s read and taught all manner of literature and philosophy. He has a PhD from the University of Maryland in Theatre in Theatre and Performance Studies and an MFA in Directing. He’s a brilliant man with, what I call, “x-ray vision” for structure. Plus, living with him for the 10 years it took him to get his doctorate spared me from ever having to get a PhD myself!

Both of us believe deeply that in our fractured, traumatized world, the creative process can be profoundly healing. We wanted to celebrate that process for everyone, to raise it up and validate it in the lives of many kinds of people, not just so-called “artists.”

Our current sub-series is called “Innovators, Artists & Solutions,” supported by the Commission on the Arts & Humanities. We’re talking to a wide range of innovators who have been using creativity to address compelling issues, from campus-wide creativity initiators to an art therapist working in a sobriety program, to a founder of a trailblazing early childhood organization, a teaching-through-creativity pioneer, a leader of a steel band for youth, a multicultural theatre leader, and more.

We actually just concluded a year-long deep dive into theatre in Washington, DC, from the 1970s to about 2019 through our series, “Theatre in Community,” funded by HumanitiesDC. We posted 28 podcast episodes of our dialogues with 17 theatremakers, from Joy Zinoman of Studio Theatre to Molly Smith of Arena Stage to actor/playwright Clayton LeBouef, who was a regular on The Wire, to Nucky Waler and Marcela Ferlito of Teatro de la Luna, and many others. It’s a tremendous resource for theatre folk and anyone interested in the cultural history of DC.

In our inaugural season of Creativists in Dialogue we talked with people from all walks of life about the role creativity has played in shaping who they are—from a Nigerian international chessmaster to master chefs, translators, early childhood educators, fashion designers, a Double Dutch leader, a birth doula, a chemical engineer, immigrants from around the world, and more, as well as artists and writers.

We have a small, but mighty team of colleagues who’ve helped produce the podcast, including our Audio Engineer Elliot Lanes, our former Social Media Manager Erinn Dumas of Dumas83, and our Transcription Editor Morgan Musselman.

Increasingly, we’re publishing our interviews in two parts, each part being about 30 minutes or so. The audio interviews are posted every Wednesday at midday, and the transcript posts every Sunday at midday. The theatre interviews also have hyper-texted glossaries of theatre terms and names mentioned in the interview.

We’ve been thrilled and honored to have had so many different people from so many different walks of life join us for this independent, civil discourse about the complexities of our world.

While we’ve been very fortunate to receive some funding, absent that funding Michael and I will have to scale back the whole project. It’s extremely time-consuming and costly. So we’ll see.

Again, your readers can check us out at

OBAAT: You typically have more irons in the fire than I can keep track of. What else is on your horizon?

EB: Well, I do have a lot of irons in the fire! In addition to the podcast, I’ve been really focused on book promotion these last few months, having lots of book launches and readings, and reaching out for reviews and interviews, etc. I’m working with a lovely young social media guy, Liam McCrickard, so there are a bunch of cool posts on my author pages at (1) Facebook. I have a great review in the Washington City Paper, and a bunch of online reviews.

But it's been great, and really satisfying to have a lot of people enjoy the readings and buy the collection and enjoy the stories.

As you know, we writers labor over our work, and labor over getting published, and labor over getting the word out, so actually having other people read and enjoy our stories is hugely gratifying. Granted, I’m not gonna be on Oprah anytime soon, but that’s ok with me.

I am also working on a novel-in-progress. I'm approaching a first draft. It’s kind of a sequel to the $1 collection. I take about 10 characters from different dollar stories and plunk them down in a fictitious diner in 1980 in a small town on the Gulf coast of Texas. It’s not my hometown; it’s a neighboring town called Texas City that’s a petrochemical, refinery town.

There’s a lot of backstory (of course, I am a queen of backstory) And there’s a lot of cross-fertilization between characters who either meet each other for the first time or have known each other for a while. A lot of my $1 characters are pretty lonely, and I’ve been worried about them, so I decided to introduce them to some other characters and see what happens.

While the novel is set in the analog days of 1980, there’s also a deep backstory about this horrible industrial accident in 1947 called the Texas City Disaster. A French ship full of ammonium nitrate blew up in the Port of Texas City, and that set off a cascade of other explosions at the adjacent refineries. Then another ship also full of ammonium nitrate blew up. The blast was heard hundreds of miles away. People thought it was an atomic bomb. The town was just flattened.

Almost 600 people died, and many thousands were injured. All but one of the 28 members of the Texas City Volunteer Fire Department were just vaporized. Until 9/11 it was the deadliest loss of firefighters’ lives in US history. In fact, the Texas City Disaster is still the deadliest industrial accident in US history.

In those post-World War II days, the industrial, petrochemical sector was roaring. There weren’t many occupational health and safety protocols. There certainly wasn’t an Environmental Protection Agency. A lot of safeguards about toxic substances came out of this tragedy.

My novel-in-progress has a somewhat unreliable narrator, who is a deeply traumatized survivor of both that disaster and Pearl Harbor who is haunted by the dead. He’s the absentee dad of the two brothers in the “Tuesday Theory” story. The younger brother is autistic, and his older brother became his guardian after their mother died of cancer. There’s also a lot of cancer in the backstories of several characters, this area being awash in carcinogens.

Like my debut novel Silent, this novel-in-progress is “polyphonic” (meaning more than one POV/point-of-view character). It has a “discontinuous” structure with intersecting story lines—think of the movies “Crash” or “Nashville” or the novel Let the Great World Sing. There isn’t just one central plot, the various narratives of a large cast of characters connect to each other, though they all eventually come together.

I’m having a lot of fun fleshing out the stories of these characters, including some very minor folks mentioned in the dollar stories. There’s the alcoholic grandfather and his daughter and grandson from “Flounder.” There’s the bibliophile from “All Knowledge,” and the Depression-era farm worker girl from “Evening in Paris.” There’s the woman fleeing her abusive ex in “Magic Fingers,” who’s the daughter of the waitress in “Tuesday Theory,” plus the abusive husband himself. Manny the Cook from “Tuesday Theory” is there as a Filipino veteran of the last mounted cavalry unit under US command in WW2, and Chester the bait man from “Flounder” resurfaces as well.

On the personal front, Michael and I are the happy new grandparents of our daughter Maya and her husband Nico’s baby daughter, Lucia—the joys of which I know you can understand, Dana, having just become a grandfather yourself. And there’s visiting our son Dylan and his partner Megan and daughter Ava in Colorado. I’m also trying to do this “Swedish Death Cleaning” and get rid of a ton of stuff that has accumulated in our little rowhouse in NE DC.

We have almost 1,000 theatre books—plays, methodology, history—that I’ve categorized and hope to sell for super cheap to a theatre institution. I’ve managed to sell about 1,000 of the other 4,000 books of fiction, critical theory, etc., though I haven’t even started on the poetry.

Plus, we have some domestic house projects, and the endless granular business of life. So, on a personal level, life is good.


Thursday, May 16, 2024

Why am I Not a Better Writer?

 No, this is not another of those whiny blogs about why I don’t sell more or Imposter Syndrome. This is a clear-eyed look at why I’m not a better writer. Or as good as I’d like to be, an examination all writers should make from time to time.


I know I write well. My range that the gamut from crime (police procedural) to crime (private investigator), but I am comfortable with my ability within that niche. I have an ear for dialog, create plots that make sense without being too obvious, and can be as funny as I need to be. I have developed a voice that well suits the kinds of stories I write.


So what is it I think I should be doing better, and why am I not doing it?


My background doesn’t help. Not that I was deprived of the things that make for a good writer. There were always plenty of books around the house, the high school library was well-stocked, and I was always encouraged to read, which I did voraciously.


It’s everything else. I grew up about twenty miles along the Allegheny River from Pittsburgh where the suburbs give way to the country. I guess demographers would call it the exurbs. My town was almost all white, heavily ethnic, and predominantly working class. I spent my summers playing ball almost every day with a crew that ebbed and flowed, but consisted of about a dozen kids; we could almost always find enough to get a game going.


We had the usual disagreements, but no one was beating hell out of anyone else, either. The best field for Whiffle ball was our backyard, which my mother loved, as she rarely had to worry about where my brother and I were or what we were up to; all she had to do was look out the bathroom window. She’d bring us cold drinks and occasionally cookies.


As an adult I dated a woman who said I grew up in the Cleaver family. That’s not accurate – things weren’t that insipid – but it’s close enough. My parents were social drinkers, and rarely drank much even then. My brother and I grew up at the tail end of the era of corporal punishment; neither of us was abused, either physically or emotionally, nor did we live in fear of either parent.


There were disagreements -  we’re talking about four intelligent, strong-willed people living in a small one-story house together for fifteen years before I left for college – but things blew over quickly. My brother and I are close, and we both remained close with our parents until they died on us.


The experiences I gained about the kinds of conflict that drives a story came after I left home, became an adult, and had to interact with the kinds of assholes everyone else gets to know early on. Sure, that’s been forty-some years now, but I was already a grown-ass man; these were not my formative years. The imprint is not as strong.


Would I trade my childhood to be a better writer? Not on your life.


My plots are a little linear, which is probably because I’m not as  right-brained as most writers. It’s close – I took a test once that came out 52 – 48 – but I like to know things are under control in my life. I don’t have to be the one who is in control,  but I need to know the situation is under control. Those two elements make it hard for me to come up with plot twist out of left field, no matter how well prepared.


I am also firmly rooted in the reality of what I can see, hear, otherwise sense, or can verify. My life has improved since I made a conscious decision many years ago to treat others better, so there’s a nagging feeling karma may have something going for it, but I am not at all a spiritual person. I like people to have reasons for what they do, even though I know they they don’t always. That’s not such a bad thing, except I write about the kinds of people Doctor Phil makes a living asking “Whut were you thanking?”


I’m working on it. I was going to write today about how the outline for the next Forte book came together, but I decided a couple of days ago it’s not as together as I thought it was; it needs a more of people doing things I wouldn’t do.


Stephen Johnson wrote a wonderful book titled, Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most. A key point is that decision scholars have discovered the best and most durable decisions are made by groups with as much diversity as can be gained, for one simple reason:


You can’t imagine what you can’t imagine.


And that simple sentence, more than anything, is why I’m not a better writer.


But I’m working on it.

Thursday, May 9, 2024

The Evil Empires

 The Beloved Spouse™ and I try to be good citizens. We vote. We pay our taxes. We never shirk summonses for jury duty. We set aside money each month for worthy causes. We make an effort.


But it gets harder all the time.


I think I’ve bought two things at Wal-Mart in the past twenty years. Even then it was because I needed something right now and couldn’t find it anywhere else. I am aware of Wal-Mart’s historical record with local businesses and their workforce and have little good to say about it.


But we buy a lot of stuff on Amazon, which is no better and might be worse.


We resolve to do more shopping elsewhere. We’ve begun to find things on Amazon, then look to see if they’re available locally, or online elsewhere. Not as convenient, but if it’s not too much more expensive we can’t afford it, or can’t live without it if it is, we’re walking away from Amazon as our go-to source for a lot of things.


But I’m a writer. I depend on Amazon for what passes as my career, especially now that I am self-publishing again.


Why I am returning to self-publishing is a post for another day; it’s a saga of its own. Accepting the premise that traditional publishing is not a good deal for me, here’s my conundrum:

·       Amazon makes it easy to create and sell my books. Hell, Amazon makes it possible to create and sell my books.

·       Much as I love small bookstores, they will not stock books unless the publisher accepts returns; they also do not typically host events for books they do not carry. (This is not limited to self-published authors. I had the same issue when I was under contract.) I can interview “real” authors and bring books to sell on consignment, or I can try to join a larger event. I did the latter several weeks ago. The bookstore not only did not promote the event, most of the employees didn’t know we were there, so no potential customers were directed around back where a dozen authors were eager to meet them. In fairness, they did pay promptly for the book I sold.


So Amazon is what I have left, despite its failures as a corporate citizen. Well, I guess I could write in a vacuum and deliver the results free as e-books to friends upon request. What would that involve?

·       Writing the book on Microsoft Word. (Or Google Docs or Apple Pages.)

·       Letting folks know about it through Facebook and The Social Media Platform Formerly Known as Twitter.

·       Sending electronic copies via G-Mail.


That leaves me to deal with some combination of Microsoft, Apple, Google, Meta, and whatever TSMPFKaT’s parent company is called, none of which are any better than Amazon.




The problem with trying to have a conscience is how much we are surrounded by people and entities that do not. Tech companies are the worst. No one starts a tech company to build an ongoing enterprise anymore. They start them to get enough of a niche for one of the giants to buy the company – or their company’s technology – so they can cash in. I have firsthand experience with this, so I’m well familiar with it. The situation is as likely to change as Joe Biden is likely to appoint Marjorie Taylor Greene to the post of NASA Administrator.


I enjoy telling stories. I enjoy the editing process. Writing posts about the craft on this blog. Doing what I can to promote others. Appearing at conferences and events. I don’t care that I don’t make any money from it. The entire process enriches my soul. It brings me joy.


Until, that is, something makes me look at the entities I have to work with for even my small niche. A more soul-sucking bunch of Midases for whom too much is never enough cannot be found outside of Nestle, the CEO of which believes water should be a commodity.


We’ve cut way back on our Amazon purchases. As for the writing, I guess this is going to be one of those situations where I need to have the serenity to accept something I cannot change. I’ll try to make up for it elsewhere.

Thursday, May 2, 2024

An Interview With Kevin Flynn, Author of Rock Creek

 Kevin Flynn is a life-long resident of the Washington, D.C. area, and served as a violent crime prosecutor in the city for more than 30 years. His non-fiction book Relentless Pursuit was nominated for an Edgar Award in 2007; Rock Creek is his first novel.  Kevin lives with his wife Patrice in Northern Virginia; their two children, Connor and Megan, are lawyers living in New York City. 


(Editor’s Note: One Bite ta a Time is experimenting with interviews that deal more with the writer than the book. For more information on Rock Creek as a story, here is the link the Amazon page.)   

 One Bite at a Time: What’s the deal with Shane Kinnock?

Kevin Flynn: As to the character himself: Shane is flawed and self-destructive but at the
same time brutally honest – both with himself and others – and dedicated to his job to the point of obsession. I never went through in real life what he went through in fictional life.  But his sensibilities are my sensibilities, and his voice is my voice.  As you’re no doubt well aware, writing fiction can be agonizing.  But it was a lot of fun to walk Shane into a scene and have him react to it verbally as I would.  He was always my anchor.

 As to the creation of the character: I was a violent crime prosecutor in DC for 35 years. That experience introduced me to a wide array of people, primarily victims of crime, perpetrators of  crime, and police officers. Those encounters were oftentimes intense, and fraught.  When I first turned to fiction I was twenty years into that job, and I had already developed a sense for the complexities of humanity that was deeper, I would submit, than is afforded by most occupations in life.  I knew in my heart that so-called heroes have flaws, and so-called villains have virtues. In creating the main characters in this book, especially Shane, I was committed to each of them being fully developed and not cardboard cutouts. Once I decided to put this story in 1952, and to have at its center a complicated protagonist with human failings, his backstory wrote itself: World War II combat veteran, returned home shellshocked, took a police job but plagued by his past, using drink to ease his pain, and at the same time trying to move forward, even incrementally.  And the vehicle of his redemption would be the case that is at the heart of the Rock Creek story.


OBAAT: Of all the possible topics to write about, what made you choose this one?

KF: So here’s the origin story.  I wrote a non-fiction book about one of my murder cases and it was published in 2007.  Shortly afterwards a friend – okay, my agent -- asked what my next book would be:  “You must have worked on a high-profile case that would be a natural basis for the next one.”  My first thought was, it took me 10 years to get this one out to the public, don’t push me to the next one.  But my second thought was:  In fact, I have worked on a case that drew national attention. A few years before, a government intern had been killed in D.C., her body found in Rock Creek Park. A Congressman, her former lover, was a suspect.  The catch was that  I couldn’t write about it. The case wasn’t in court yet. All the details of our investigation were confidential.  And I’d come to know the victim’s parents well, and didn’t want to write any factual account that would seem in any way to exploit their pain.   

 But I came to realize that if I took the basic facts of the case and reset it in the post-war period as fiction, I had an opportunity to write a far richer story.  I could concoct a backstory for the fictional victim that wouldn’t track that of the real-life victim, and at the same time create a  better whodunit with more distinctive characters and a much more original, revelatory account of the city and its people that I knew so well. 

So I went and ran with it.

 OBAAT: As a debut novelist you may be uniquely qualified to answer some questions for others hoping for publication. Let’s start with the road to getting Rock Creek published.

KF: Anyone who thinks that writing is easy isn't familiar with the lines of the Irish poet who said, "Better to get down on your marrow bones and scrub kitchen pavement." There's also some exhilaration in the process: a more modern writer has observed, "I hate writing, but I love having written." This novel took a particularly torturous path in getting to press. When I started writing it I had never written fiction, had never even taken a fiction writing course, of any kind.  And it showed.  The spine of the story is now as it was then, the characters were as well-developed, and it featured occasionally moving turns of phrase.  But in retrospect I can see it was often plodding, none of its scenes opened compellingly, and it lacked propulsive pace.  I couldn't even get my agent – the same one who had prompted me to go forward with this project to begin with – to put the book out the publishers. And as frustrating as that was, he was right: It wasn't ready. I did at least four more drafts – maybe five, I’ve lost count – before it met with his specs, and he put it out, with no bites. In 2019 he put me on a path that led to another agent who specialized in fiction, and ultimately a publisher bought it -- only to go into breach and leave a trail of abusive communications in his wake. Bottom line: I got my rights back, and the book is coming out in May 2024.  My story may be more strenuous than most, but my research of anecdotal experiences suggests that it’s not all that aberrational. 

 OBAAT: Did you hire an editor to review your manuscript before publishing?

KF: Yes.  I actually worked the process a bit in reverse.  Most published authors go the route of:  Write book, get agent, have book sold to publisher, publisher edits book.  My route was:  Write book, get editor, get agent, have book sold to publisher.  (Leaving out all of the rancorous after- business with the last publisher, which came to the water’s edge of litigation.) 

 In crass financial terms:  My specific story suggests that if an unknown writer has a book and has been unsuccessful in obtaining a notable agent – an essential part of the process of securing a contract from a notable publisher – he or she should retain an editor to polish their manuscript before sending it out again.

 But far more importantly, from an artistic point of view:  Every writer needs an editor, case closed.  F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway had Max Perkins, and that’s just the most prominent of the examples that could be cited. 

 My humble opinion:  Anyone who’s writing for publication should be aspiring to be the best writer who’s ever written.   When Hemingway was asked about what his ambition was as a writer he responded with something along the lines of, “To be the heavyweight champion of the world, of course.”  And one last quote here – a long-lost post on Substack – “Good writing is in the writing, great writing is in the revising.”

 OBAAT: You are a relatively rare creature, a DC native with family roots in Washington. How did that affect the stimulus and writing of Rock Creek?

KF: I have to say that I quarrel a bit with the premise.  The common observation is that this is a transient area – and certainly the political class in D.C. proper is – but I would submit that the population of the DMV as a whole is no more transient than most U.S. urban areas are (outside the most provincial, my personal examples being Baltimore, Philadelphia and Boston).  But I get the point.  And as to the question, did my status as a D.C. native affect the stimulus and writing of Rock Creek, the answer is:  in every way imaginable. 

 I wanted to write a book that combined the two parts of the D.C. that I knew from childhood

on – capital of the free world, and small town -- in a way that would introduce it to the public at large, or at least the reading public, so they would see it fresh.  I said earlier that when I embarked on fiction writing I was deficient in some ways, lack of formal training being most prominent.   But from trial lawyering I had one thing going for me, among others.  To try a case to a jury is to tell a story to them, a story that is tethered in truth and authenticity.  And every good story is grounded in a place, and I had the setting of Rock Creek nailed down before I even had characters to move about in it. 

 OBAAT: Which authors are the greatest influences on your work, and how or why have they been so influential?

KF: Here’s the incongruity.  I’ve written a book that’s characterized as a combination of mystery thriller and historical fiction.  But I’ve rarely if ever read mystery thrillers, and I’ve never read – at least in my living memory – any work of historical fiction. 

 As to historical fiction, there are classics out there – Memoirs of Hadrian, and going back aways, the Gore Vidal books and The Year of the French – haven’t gotten to them.  They all join my ranks of Great Books on My Bookshelf That Remain Unread.  I hope to someday read more in the genre, especially the Hadrian book.  But I can definitively say that they in no way influenced my writing of this book. 

 Likewise mystery thrillers, but for different reasons.  With my work life being what it was, I avoided mystery and crime books, not to mention all true crime TV series.  Put simply:  I was living it, why would I delve back into it when I got home?  Where was the escape in that? 

 On the positive side.  My primary writing activity for the last 35 years – notwithstanding the book that’s being published now, and the book that was published in 2007 – has been in writing opening statements and closing arguments as a prosecutor.  In that realm – the realm of making words flow and sentences that sing, in a way that move people – my influences have remained static through the years: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Camus, Roth. 

 OBAAT: What are you up to next?

KF: I don’t know.