I have an author event today (Thursday, March 24) at Village Books in Bellingham. I’ll speak and answer questions about all three of my books, with a focus on “The Roving Fitzgeralds,” and “The Kabul Conscript,” my two latest, both published during the pandemic. I’ll also show some photos I took while a Peace Corps Trainee in Afghanistan in 1973, the summer of the coup by General Daoud. That experience inspired my novel, “The Kabul Conscript.” https://www.facebook.com/events/190215556564787
It’s probably true that a writer is the person least likely to understand the preferences of his or her readers. That is certainly the case with my two novels, “Cape Decision” and “The Kabul Conscript.”
Of the two, “Cape Decision” continues to be the better seller, which somewhat mystifies me. This in spite of the fact that Afghanistan, the setting of “The Kabul Conscript” is much more in the news and public consciousness than Alaska.
I conceived the idea of both novels at the same time, with the goal of writing about the main characters (Conrad, David, & Karen) in their youth and in middle age. In one respect “The Kabul Conscript” is a sort of prequel to “Cape Decision,” since it is set nearly thirty years earlier, although the books may be read in any order.
Those I know of who have read both novels seem about even in preferring one book over the other, and I can find no pattern, aside from whether they have visited either region. Certainly most Alaskan readers, or those who have visited that state have a preference for “Cape Decision,” and a few that have traveled in Central Asia like the Afghan story best. But not in every case. Several readers who live in Alaska, or used to live there have told me they preferred “The Kabul Conscript.”
While I was writing the books I always thought the Afghan novel would be the more popular, not just because of the setting, but because it is in most ways an easier read, with a more straight forward plot. Although both novels portray strong emotions and violent acts, in many ways “The Kabul Conscript” is a lighter read—intentional on my part, as one of my goals was to illustrate the differences in the way youth and middle age live in the world, and how people can change over time. Life gets more complicated as we age, and “Cape Decision” is a more complex and challenging read—or perhaps I just think of it that way, as it was more challenging to write!
This of course is all speculation on my part. Generally it seems artists can seldom predict which of their works will resonate best with the public. I guess such evaluation is best left to the readers and critics.
“Cape Decision” ended with a sort of cliff-hanger, and fans of that book have asked if there will be a sequel. To that question I hope I can safely answer “yes,” but when, I can’t say. In March of last year (2021) I published “The Roving Fitzgeralds.” Research and editing for that took the better part of 2020. Since then I have been working on a couple of new projects, one of which is a “Cape Decision” sequel. But I can’t predict yet which of my writing projects will be available first.
My father lived to be 59, and mother 39. Attaining the age of 70 isn’t something I ever imagined, yet here I am.
At seventy I can no longer pretend I am “middle-aged”—let alone young. No, seventy is not the new forty or fifty, no matter what the wishful thinkers and health pundits may say. You won’t put off the reality of aging by taking lots of vitamins, exercising, or not eating meat. Sure, you can generally live longer or at least better by controlling your weight, getting outside as much as possible, not eating all kinds of junk food, or drinking yourself into stupor every day. Still, I know plenty of drunks, couch potatoes, and garbage-guts who have lived long lives. Some of it is your genetic inheritance, and much just luck. Anyone can slip on a banana peel, get in a car wreck, get exposed to toxins, or just get some random mutation that kills them quickly or slowly at a young age.
I discovered some interesting things in my sixties. The most amazing revelation was how mentally flexible we humans are, and how much we can still learn as we age. I don’t memorize songs as fast as I did in my thirties or forties, but I’m still improving as a musician. When the pandemic started I set for myself the pleasant challenge of learning to play the “standards” and jazz tunes. My entire adult life I have played rock and pop music professionally, and I’m reasonably competent at that. But I had never learned to play songs by composers like Rogers, Porter, Gershwin, and the other greats of an earlier era. Amazingly, after a year and a half of woodshedding, I find I can play those songs, though I certainly will never play like Barney Kessel or Joe Pass!
In my fifties and sixties I wrote two musical theatre pieces, a fair number of songs, published two novels, and edited and published my great grandfather’s memoirs. By comparison, my creative life was not nearly so populated in my youth. In my sixties, after living my whole life in the Northwest—Alaska, Washington, Oregon—all wet, cool climates, I discovered an intense love of the desert. Now I take every opportunity to ramble through the “empty” spaces of Eastern Oregon and Nevada. In my late sixties my granddaughter was born. Perhaps the daily interaction with her, though at times trying, helps keep my brain, if not my body more supple!
In my thirties, forties, and fifties, while my wife and I raised a family and worked, I had the energy to build and remodel our houses; build a wooden sailboat; perform in rock bands; design and operate a recording studio; run long distances three or four evenings a week; and participate in community service activities. My family, music, sailing, construction and cabinet-making occupied much of my time. Writing, literature, and studying history were important even then, but now I have more time for the arts, reading, road trips, and just daydreaming—one of great benefits of retiring from the workaday grind, if you can manage it.
Now seventy, I hope to continue the learning process as long as I can. The world is full of wonders. Perhaps the most profound realization of my “mature years” has been the substantiation and confirmation, decade after decade of the knowledge that it is futile and a waste of time and energy to look to the so-called holy books, religion, the words of preachers, or superstition for inspiration or truth with a capital “T.” I was fortunate to understand this at an early age, after an intense study of mythology, history, anthropology, and some experience with psychedelic plants. This world and what we can see, hear, and feel is more than sufficient. Rereading “Desert Solitaire” again after so many years, I find Edward Abbey summarizes my attitude perfectly: “For my own part I am pleased enough with surfaces—in fact they alone seem to me to be of much importance. Such things for example as the grasp of a child’s hand in your own, the flavor of an apple, the embrace of a friend or lover, the silk of a girl’s thigh, the sunlight on rock and leaves, the feel of music, the bark of a tree, the abrasion of granite and sand, the plunge of clear water into a pool, the face of the wind—what else is there? What else do we need?”
For the future, if I survive and am up to it, I hope to accomplish a bit more artistically. I have several more book projects either in process or in mind; including a sequel to “Cape Decision,” a science fiction story collection, perhaps a book about building my wooden sailboat in Alaska, and a children’s story. Of course I will perform professionally as long as I am capable of it, and continue this musical journey as long as I can—and yes, those desert places still beckon…
Finally—in person author events again!
Although I enjoyed my zoom interview last year, nothing compares to in person events. On October 21 I will be at Seaport Books in La Conner, and October 28 Village Books in Bellingham. More information is at the bookstore websites.
I hope to see you there!
The Northern Light newspaper published a nice author feature July 29, 2021. Of course I’m happy to get a bit more publicity for my books!
Here’s a nice quote from the article: “He did a reading here once that was really cool,” Johnson said. “He had voice actors read different parts of his book, so it had this really cool theatrical feel to it, which totally encompasses what Mike is like.” (Rachel Johnson, Village Books publishing director)