Friday, December 19, 2008

A Candid Interview with Michael Lister

This year I was lucky enough to learn about Michael Lister through the DorothyL list serve that I subscribe to. Michael shared his first novel, Power in the Blood, with me and I was hooked right away. Not only is Michael's protagonist, John Jordan, unique but he's in the perfect setting for crime - the Florida Department of Corrections!

I didn't know much about Michael, and his biography on the book jacket didn't give much away, either. By now you know the kinds of questions I throw out...MOST book jackets don't include that kind of info! So of course, I was interested to pick his brain and find out what brought him to writing, specifically writing crime fiction. He was generous enough to fit me and my questions into a very busy schedule. What I found was absolutely fascinating. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did!

Ladies and Gents, Mr. Michael Lister!

Q. Did you always have aspirations to write fiction? What inspired you to publish crime fiction?

Michael: From a very, very early age I knew I was born to be a communicator, but back then - in childhood and adolescence - I didn't realize how primary writing would be. It's the center of all my creativity, all my communication. In part because of "Verba volant. Scripta Manent." - Spoken words fly away. Written words remain.

I knew I wanted to be a writer long before I ever actually became one -- had quite a few false starts. Came close in college, but it wasn't until I was finishing up my graduate degree that everything finally clicked and I began to write fiction pretty much every day. That was in the summer of 1994.

I write literary and general fiction, plays and screenplays, essays, etc., but I always come back to crime fiction. I enjoy reading well-written crime fiction more than anything, and that's what I continually try to produce. Also, as a prison chaplain, I knew I had a unique job and perspective.

Q: You were a prison chaplain in the Florida Department of Corrections. What led you to that career? And what made you decide to pursue writing full time?
Michael: I came by chaplaincy by chance or fate. A small group of us from town went out to visit the chaplain at the new prison in our area and he looked at me and told me I should be a chaplain. Before that moment, it had never crossed my mind, but something inside me clicked. I started two weeks later.

From the very beginning I knew it was temporary, but it enabled me to be a light in a dark place, meet some fascinating people, have some great experiences, and live my research.

In the same way John Jordan tries to balance chaplaincy and investigations, I've always tried to balance art and ministry, always done both. Leaving chaplaincy to write full-time just shifted the balance a bit. I still volunteer in the prison, still do charity work, teach classes, etc. I do more art than ministry and I don't see that changing, though I feel often the two get combined in my work so that I'm not having to choose between the two.
Q: Of course, John Jordan is also a prison chaplain. How much of Jordan's experiences stem from your own experiences and how much comes from your imagination?
Michael: It's a lot of both. My actual experiences inform my books a great deal - the environment, how prison works, the policies and procedures of the DOC - but the characters and stories are works of imagination. I'm not sure what percentage of each goes in - it's probably different at different times - but I'd guess when a scene or book is working it's because there's a good balance between the two - my actual experiences and my imagination.
Q: One of the elements about Power in the Blood that really struck me was how you portray the humanity of the prison inmates. You don't discard their crimes, but you still emphasize that they are HUMAN. That's often hard for the average person to remember. Are there any events or experiences that really stand out for you from your time there? Maybe something that was especially rewarding for you or something that left a huge impact on your person?
Michael: One of the most disconcerting things that happens in prison is that you meet inmates, get to know them, work with them, minister to them, and only later see their file - the details of their crimes - at which point you wonder how could this person you know do such horrific deeds. It lets you know that we're all capable of far more desperate, self-centered, destructive behavior than we want to think.

Like my protagonist, my religion is compassion. I truly believe that the best and only valid response to any and everyone is love. Of course, I and my protagonist very often fail at this. (I only hope John Jordan fails more than I do.)

Q: Along those same lines, how alike are you and Jordan? How do you differ?
Michael: We have a lot of philosophical similarities - see the world a lot alike (not identical, but similar), have a similar sense of humor - neither of us really fit where we live or in the work we do.

John and I have had very different lives, very different families, very different demons - he lives in Pottersville; I live in Bedford Falls. His family's a real mess - there's addiction, dysfunction. My friends say the house I grew up in was like Leave it to Beaver.

Q: Have you modeled any of the characters after actual people you know? The dimensions to your characters make them come alive for the reader, and dynamics between them is outstanding. Does the character development seem to come naturally for you or is that an area that requires a great deal of effort on your part?
Michael: First, thanks for your kind words. For me, characters - people - are the reason people read. There are other reasons, of course, but I think we primarily want to spend time with interesting people whom we can get to know, and in the process, get to know ourselves better. I've spent a lot of time counseling over the years, getting to know the most intimate thoughts and secrets in the hearts and minds of those I've worked with. I think that's helped a lot. I don't base my characters on real people I know, but I'm often accused of doing that - which is a great compliment I think.

Q: Building on that question, when you write, do you try to outline or plot out the events? Or do the characters drive the story? What is your particular process?
Michael: Character is destiny. The people in my books determine the plot. When I first started writing, I'd outline, but now I begin with just enough to get started - characters, beginning, some vague notion of the end, and a few events/turning points along the way. I like to wake up each morning and rush to my keyboard wanting to find out what happens next in the story! I feel that if the writing experience is that way for me, the readers will have the same experience as they read. That's my hope anyway.
Q: You teach at the Gulf Coast Community College, are an editor for the Gulf County Breeze newspaper and you write not only the novels but also essays, plays and screenplays. First, how do you find the time for all that? Whew! And do you have any hobbies or outside interests that you try to squeeze in when you have some free time?

Michael: I've designed my life to give me a lot of time to write, so I get a lot of uninterrupted writing time. A lot. Every single day. Beyond that, I spend a lot of time with my children. I'm in the Big Brothers program, so I spend time with my "Little Brother." I've got a community theatre so I spend a lot of time writing, producing, directing and acting. The rest is reading, film, basketball and Mustangs (the cars, not the horses).

Q: What was the driving factor(s) that prompted you to start writing the John Jordan mysteries?

Michael: Henry James once said he was a reader moved to emulation. I can relate. I love crime fiction - especially series, so when I started writing, that's what came out.

I really wanted to bring two worlds, two genres together - that of the clerical sleuth and that of the hard-boiled detective. I thought prison chaplaincy was the perfect intersection.

I also wanted to take readers where they rarely get to go - North Florida and deep inside a state prison.
Q: Is there more in the future for Jordan or do you have plans to move in a different direction? You've also published some short stories, correct? Can you tell us a little about those?
Michael: I've got two more John Jordan novels coming out next year - Blood Money and The Body and the Blood, and I've two other completed.

I do write a lot of different things: literary fiction, thrillers, noir, romance/erotica, general fiction, nonfiction meditation/inspiration. I have three collections of short stories out - one John Jordan, Flesh and Blood, and two noir, North Florida Noir and Another Quiet Night in Desperation. I really enjoy writing short stories and have plans for another collection very soon. There's more about various projects I have going at
Q: Are there writers you feel have influenced your personal writing style?
Michael: Hemingway the most, even when the influence has come through others. He's influenced us all. Graham Greene, Phillip Roth, Raymond Chandler, John Irving, Dashiel Hammet, Robert Parker, James Lee Burke, Andrew Greeley, Walter Mosley, Ron Hansen, Cormac McCarthy.
Q: Are you reading anything now that you would recommend to people who enjoy your books?
Michael: I highly recommend the books by the above authors. In particular, The End of the Affair, Marriet in Ecstasy, Purple Cain Road, Walking Shadow - there are so many. I'm constantly recommending books and films in my review column "Of Font and Film" ( ).
Q: Can you share an especially memorable experience from a time when you had a chance to interact with your readers? Maybe from a book signing or a convention or something of that sort, something that has really stuck with you and maybe left you feeling like "this is what makes it all worth it?"
Michael: I always enjoy hearing from readers. It's amazing what a positive response or a kind word about something that means so much to me does. It means the most when someone is touched or inspired, but I also enjoy hearing that people "couldn't put it down" or it "kept me up all night" or "I'm not a reader, but I read your book straight through and loved it."
Q: And my last question - there is a book out called Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure. What would be YOUR six-world memoir?
Michael: Passionate, compassionate, seeker, open to life.
What a great outlook on one's life! I have Blood of the Lamb waiting here at home for me to tackle, and I'm looking forward to meeting up with John Jordan in the Florida Department of Corrections again. You can learn a lot more about Michael at his website here. And rest assured, you'll be hearing more from me in the future about Michael and his books right here.

And don't you love the Latin quote? I'm thinking that would make a GREAT bookmark, eh?

Michael, my sincerest thanks to you. I know you were very busy in the middle of a play at your theatre and I'm so appreciative that you made time for this interview. Thank you also for the use of the wonderful pictures. I know the readers are going to enjoy them ALMOST as much as I do! Best of luck!

Happy Reading everyone!


Serena December 19, 2008 at 9:15 AM  

what a fantastic interview and I love the questions you asked. very insightful

The book sounds great...a chaplain investigator in a prison system...very unique.

Joy December 19, 2008 at 9:45 AM  

Oh Jen - this sounds fantastic and love Michael Lister's attitude. I actually volunteered a couple of times in a local woman's prison and found it fascinating. I just have to read this book! Thanks for sharing. (How do you make these contacts?)

Corey Wilde December 19, 2008 at 2:29 PM  

I hate to be a parrot, but I ditto everything Serena said. Your interviews always bring out something interesting about the author but this one may be your best yet.

beauvallet December 19, 2008 at 9:33 PM  

It takes a remarkable person to do the job he's done. I agree with Corey, this may be your best interview to date. You really brought out the person, as well as the author.

Jen December 19, 2008 at 10:57 PM  

Thanks everyone for your generous comments. Michael leant himself to a fun interview, and your feedback makes the whole process even more rewarding for me. I'm so glad you enjoyed this!

le0pard13 December 23, 2008 at 12:31 PM  

Playing catch-up is never fun, except when it comes to reading another of your great interviews.

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