A Conversation With Mike Monson

Mike is our latest guest – he’s the author of Criminal Love and Other Stories (a collection of short stories), What Happens in Reno and The Scent of New Death (novellas), and Tussinland (a novel). Make sure to check them on Amazon. He’s also the editor at All Due Respect and has a nice home on the web.

Mike Monson

Mike Monson

Hi, Mike – can you tell us a little bit about Mike Monson?

I was born a long time ago: 1956. I am a native Californian (a rare second generation one, of which I am inexplicably proud), though I’ve lived in Texas six years and Hawaii for a year and a half. My ancestors on my dad’s side are mostly French and British and a lot of them came to America way before the Revolutionary War. On my mother’s side there is Choctaw, Scottish and German.
I’ve been married three times and am currently living with the sublime/wise/lovely Rebecca Monson in Modesto, California. I have a son Drew, who is a popular Youtuber and an upcoming actor/writer for movies and TV. My daughter Lily attends Cal State Fresno and is beautiful and charming. I’ve had a wide variety of jobs in my life (just a few: pizza cook, waiter, truck driver, taxi driver, IRS tax examiner, pizza cook, temporary office worker, newspaper reporter, public relations and employee communications writer/editor at Gallo Winery, pizza cook, banquet waiter), but for the last 20 or so years I’ve mostly worked as a litigation paralegal for big San Francisco law firms. Last week I started with a so-far wonderful firm in Modesto. I love to read and watch TV and movies. I read literary books as well as crime (but mostly crime) and I like nonfiction about American popular culture subjects. For TV I like a lot of the great shows on subscription cable, and true crime like Dateline, etc., as well a lot of those cheesy reality shows and silly singing competitions. I am pretty middle or low-brow in my entertainment tastes. I play guitar and ukulele even though I suck at both. I love vintage American acoustic guitars and would be a collector if I were rich.

When did you found you were a writer?
As long as I can remember I’ve wanted to be a writer. But, for most of my life I had trouble following through on any ideas or projects. I had a brief attempt at being a playwright from about 1988 to 1992 or so but I dropped that and focused on making a living and raising my kids. Then, in the summer of 2012 I got a strong urge again (after years of reading three or four books a week on my five-hour commute), and I just sat down and starting writing my ass off with no expectation or censorship. To my great surprise, decent real-feeling stories started to flow and I loved it. I seemed to have some kind of voice finally. This hasn’t really stopped. My wife was a great encouragement and I don’t think I would’ve continued to write my published stories and books without her undying support – it was just what I needed. And this is not some way to suck up to my wife—I’m really serious, none of my stories and books would’ve been written if I’d never met Rebecca. So, I blame her.
What I am saying then, is that I found myself a writer in about July of 2012.

What’s writing to you? Do you find a writer as a man on a higher mission, an educator, or just someone who tells stories to anyone who’s willing to read them?
The later. I like stories. I definitely want to express myself through fiction and show people how I see the world, but the most important thing to me is to get a reader excited about a story and compel them to turn the pages to find out how things are going to turn out. That’s why I read, and if I’m not interested in the story by about a quarter of the way into a book I usually stop reading. I get very frustrated if I think a writer is going on and on about stuff that could just be skipped to get to the next event, the next dramatic scene. I get very frustrated with myself when I do that, and I do it way too much.

You’re writing short stories, novellas and you have a novel published recently. Which is more satisfying to work on?
I don’t know. I’m not real excited about writing short stories anymore though I still love to read them. I might prefer novellas because for the kind of crime/noir that I like that has very little padding, and no complicated police procedural/PI/mystery elements, and that just gets to the point – 15 to 30K words can work real well. But, I definitely felt a sense of accomplishment when I finished the full-length (though on the short side at 55K words) Tussinland and I want to do more at that length for sure.

You’re also an editor – that involves a lot of reading and “messing” with other writers’ work. How much can a writer learn from editing other work?
Well, for me, probably, “editor” is a sort of exaggerated term for what I do and of the skills I have. Most of my job with ADR the magazine and ADR Books is to cull through submissions to find stories and books that we think are already nearly ready for publication as is. We are not interested in doing a lot of back and forth editing and changing. Sure, once a story or a book is accepted we may do some minor edits (most of those are done by Chris Rhatigan) and then both of us proofread as well as we can.
I’ll admit that I’d be a horrible editor at a major publishing house. I’m just not good at it. I just know what I like and I can sometimes find ways to make a sentence or passage less awkward or clearer but that is about it.
But, still, to answer your question—doing my unsophisticated editor work at the level I’ve described teaches me more and more about my taste, about what I love and why, and it teaches me, sometimes, what works as a story and what doesn’t. So often I get fiction submissions that have well-written characters and shows sophisticated skills at description and at evoking a sense of place, but that still fall flat. I’m fascinated but why that is, and what it is about the good books that set them apart. Though I must admit I’m a long way from figuring all that out.

What does your typical day look like? How much of your time is taken up by writing?
I’ve never had a set writing schedule. It’s different every day and it’s not important to me to make sure I write every day and if I don’t write anything new for days or weeks at a time I don’t care. So I may not write at all, or possibly up to maybe two or three hours. Most of my free time not spent at a job or with family or doing errands or my favorite things like playing guitar/uke, reading or watching TV and eating, is taken up with reading ADR magazine and ADR Books submissions, promoting and marketing myself or ADR books and other publishing/editorial tasks. I also fully participate in social media of all kinds and I really get off on the connections I make and the interactions with so many other people. I spend a lot of my time looking at TV, phone, Kindle, and computer screens.
I’m not worried about making sure I write because I just know it’s a great desire of mine and that strong desire tends to take care of itself without much thinking or planning from me. And if the desire goes away, I’ll stop writing.

Do you do some research or write out of your head?
Both. I want to always be writing stories that take as little research and new factual knowledge as possible. I don’t want to become an expert in police procedure or forensics and other subjects that some crime writers deal with. I don’t even want to write about professional criminals a lot because I don’t really know that much about them and I don’t want to get it wrong or just write from knowledge gained from other crime books that might be completely wrong and thus just perpetuate the same clichés. Though I love to read good crime books about professional criminals. (That said, for Scent of New Death I did do extensive research on the facts about real bank robbers mostly from whatever writings I could find from real bank robbers, and also from the FBI website, and that research helped a lot.)
For What Happens in Reno, for example, I wanted the character to be able to pay cash at a certain Reno hotel/casino but I wasn’t sure if that was possible. So I called up their front desk and just asked them about the procedure for checking in without giving out any credit card information. I also had to learn how Reno casino poker rooms worked, which took a lot of research, and I had to make sure I understood at least the basics of Texas Hold ’em Poker. So far I’ve found that this kind of research actually helps make the books better because the reality of things is often more interesting than my inaccurate idea and what I learn sparks new ideas all the time that hopefully make the books more interesting and real-feeling to readers.
Now, for Tussinland and The Scent of New Death I wrote a lot about the Modesto Police Department and I have characters who are patrolmen and detectives and I really have no idea if any of that is at all like the people and the procedure in real life. So, for that I just decided to live with the fact that I made stuff up. I didn’t want to hang out with the MPD and visit the jail and interview cops to make sure I was accurate. However, I’m certain that those books have been read by very few residents of Modesto and most likely no members of the Police Department and I bet that won’t change—and if it did that would mean I’d gone to a new level of readership, so flack from the MPD would be a good problem to have.
I also have to make sure everything I do put down that can be checked against reality somehow is correct: details on guns, drugs, the effect of injuries on humans, geography – you know, everything. That stuff comes up constantly and requires thorough checking. Though I’m always afraid I’m getting something very wrong and people will know and think I’m an idiot (not an uncommon experience in all areas of my life). I was recently reading over Tussinland again and I’m pretty sure I should’ve done way more research on heroin and how it is used. I was pretty lazy about that and I’m worried that people who actually know those subjects who read the book will think I’m full of shit.
I think I want to focus mostly on regular people that I can relate to and that I feel I know from real life and show them getting into horrible trouble due to their obsessions/addictions/compulsions/stupidity and all around self-centered awful behavior and possibly wind up doing criminal things in the course of the plot. Though so far doing this seems to require the presence of bad guys in supporting roles. That’s just the way it is.

Where do you get inspiration for your writing? Is it films, other authors, real life?
My inspiration for stories and characters and their conflicts/stakes always come from real life. What I tend to do is go through my days watching and thinking about the behaviors of myself and those around me and then my imagination will just naturally think up some exaggerated fucked up outcome of certain situations and real life dramas. And, sometimes, when I do that, I’ll realize that I’ve thought up a story that I am excited about enough to try to write.
However, for how the story is told and the subject matter, I definitely get inspired by other writers and try not to copy them in a way that is too obvious. And, I’m pretty sure that for novellas at least, I kind of pattern my plots after crime movies I like since they tend to have a very basic, simple structure without any filler material.

What are you working on at the moment, if it’s not a secret?
I’m just finishing a novella about a sociopathic killer/thief that I’m thinking about calling A Killer’s Love, or maybe The Love of A Killer, I’m not sure yet. Something with killer and love in the title that sounds sort of like a 50s pulp/noir. I’ve also started a full-length novel about a week-long convention of rich and successful software salesmen for a hugely profitable U.S. tech company that takes place at a fancy Hawaii resort and that involves a lot of bad behavior: adultery, drunkenness, illegal drug use, multiple murders. You know, all the fun stuff.

Who are your literary heroes?
I don’t know. I’m going through a phase where I’ve lost interest in much of the established/mainstream writers in either literary or crime/noir fiction but I still love Pelicanos, James Lee Burke, Robert Crais, T. Jefferson Parker, and I adore Jason Starr.
My heroes now are writers in the indy scene who publish for little reward or notoriety but still put out wonderful, original stuff – especially, of course, writers we are publishing with All Due Respect Books.

What about Social Media and your work? How important it is for you to promote your writing and network with other writers, readers, …?
I’m still unclear about how important exactly social media is in promoting my writing and selling All Due Respect the crime journal and All Due Respect Books. But, I think it is vital in the indy Amazon-dominated marketplace to have the right kind of presence in order to increase the likelihood of selling books and of making sure our books and my name as a writer is out there. And, again, what the right presence is I’m very confused about and my ideas on that are constantly changing and evolving. In other words, I’m fully participating while being totally clueless.

You’ve just met a young (or maybe not that young) writer – what advice would you give him?
Only write if you can’t stop yourself, if your desire to communicate through fiction is all consuming. It’s a tricky, difficult thing to do right, and there is so much rejection and I don’t see any point in getting involved in it if your not really excited and compelled. Then, I’d say to figure out what genre and subject matter most appeal to you and for which you have the most ideas that really work. Doesn’t matter if it is literary or courtroom drama or crime or sci fi or horror or whatever. Be okay with what kind of fiction comes out of you that really works and that grabs a reader’s attention. Right? Otherwise, why even waste your time?

Thank you, Mike!
Thanks for having me, I really enjoyed it and think I talked way too much.

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