Paul Michel is a multi-talented man. His first novel, Houdini Pie, hits the shelves on April 10th 2010. The book is inspired by a true story, about the hunt for a legendary Hopi Indian treasure in the middle of Los Angeles, during the prohibition. He talks fast and while talking there is a look in his eyes, as if he is busy formulating what he is going to say three sentences from now. And he is not just ranting; everything leads to a point. If this quality spills over into his writing, I imagine that Houdini Pie must be a highly entertaining and intelligently put together book.
We talk for a while, about how living as a creative person takes years of dedicated effort before the pay-off maybe comes. And how when it does come, it is often from a completely different and surprising source. Paul is also a working musician, and like most other creatives he holds a day-job as well.
AP: For many years music seemed to be your main creative calling. When and how did you become serious about fiction writing?
PM: I suppose I’m one of those people who always “intended” to write, the difference from most (or from most of my other intentions) being that I actually made a serious effort at it, rather than just continuing to intend. In the early 1990s I took a few classes through the University of Washington Extension School, and got faculty encouragement to consider graduate-level instruction. After publishing my first story in 1995, I started looking into low-residency MFA programs. I settled on the Warren Wilson Program for Writers in Swannanoa, North Carolina, where I received my Master’s in 1998. Though an MFA is in no way a “requirement” for a wanna-be writer, in my case the rigors of an intensive approach like Warren Wilson’s taught me the most important thing a writer has to learn–how to sit still and write. A lot. The curriculum was intensive, and It was essential to develop a capacity for solitude and simply grinding it out.
Since graduating I’ve been fortunate to have been able to maintain that discipline enough to produce a fair number of pages. The more one writes, the better one becomes. There is no substitute for production. The Muse is less a wand-waving fairy of inspiration than she is the drum-beater in a Roman ship galley.
PM: I stumbled on the bare outlines while researching something else online; I wish I remembered what. I found the basic story irresistible — the sheer stark madness of the endeavor, and the fact that so many people took it seriously. It spoke to me not only of the awesome power of desperation, but also of the willful suspension of common sense and accepted wisdom that, in one way or another, drives every bold and grand human venture.
I wanted to present the story obliquely, as it were — that is, not to write simply about the engineer and his scheme. A sympathetic side-kick seemed to present a good protagonist around whom to tell the tale. I immersed myself a bit in the period – I’ve long been kind of a student of Depression-era culture – and the baseball theme reared its head. My father was a semi-pro ball player on the east coast at about the same time as Hal, the novel’s main character, was in California. I think it’s hard for us to realize these days what a big deal baseball was back then, but if you read enough old newspapers (and I read a lot of them) you get a sense of how much it could bind, define and sometimes divide communities. The Prohibition and bootlegging angle seemed inescapable, in writing about the years leading up to the novel’s main action. Once I realized that I was about to write a novel about both bootlegging and baseball, I couldn’t wait to get started. As a writer, especially a novelist, no matter how fact-based your plot, you get to invent a world. It’s a rare privilege.
AP: How did you go about turning the initial inspiration into a complete first draft?
PM: I did some minimal research — I didn’t want to write a “historical novel” in a genre sense, and I didn’t want to get too tied up with or bogged down by factual minutiae. I spent some time in L.A. and Oxnard, read some books on mining and Pacific Coast League baseball, and then just started writing. The original draft was nearly three times as long as the finished novel: There is a lot more of Hal’s story buried deep in my hard drive. But not to worry; no sequel is planned.
PM: I don’t have the luxury of rituals or routine, as I still work a full-time day job with its schedule demands, apart from those of family, and sometimes of music. I write anywhere and everywhere — at home, in my office, in coffee shops, on airplanes and trains. Once I get focused I am pretty oblivious to distraction, so I don’t mind writing in public places. I take a lot of notes in an assortment of pads and journals and stray bits of paper, and generally dedicate a box or old briefcase to research materials, hand-written drafts and such. But once I’m into the project I rarely look at it — I just write. No special music, favorite pen, comfy chair, or so on.
I do tend to write a lot in my head, while walking or grocery shopping or at the gym — sometimes not simply ideas but concrete, specific paragraphs and chapters, and I’m blessed and cursed with the sort of memory that allows me then to get it all on (virtual) paper pretty quickly when I get the chance. So sometimes the writing process itself goes rather quickly.
AP: How do you balance your time and passion between writing, music and everyday life?
PM: Don’t assume there’s a balance! The tripod is perennially askew. When I am hard at work with a story or novel the music suffers; when I’m working with a band or recording or when it’s festival time, I have trouble staying focused on the writing. “Everyday life” tends to take a back seat to both: Unless I’m playing gigs, I don’t get out much, as the saying goes. Though I also find that the music and writing, at the best times, feed each other. When I’m writing well, I hear myself better on instruments, and my playing seems (to me at least) more thoughtful and deliberate. Conversely, when I’m playing a lot, I have a stronger sense of rhythm in my prose; I guess I write with a more musical ear, more attuned to the sounds of words; their echoes and resonances. Ideally, I’m always doing at least a bit of both.