Michael DiLeo has a lot in common with Craig and Elisa. Like Elisa, he's a native Long Islander and a Yankees fan. Like Craig and Elisa both, he's a Beatles fan. He's also the author of two books. His novella, Images of Broken Light, opens a window into the lives of three New Yorkers in the days leading up to John Lennon's murder. It was a pleasure to work with Mike on this project. Here's what he had to say about the story, his writing process, and what it was like to live through that time.
Q: What inspired you to write this novella?
Michael: I’ve dabbled in screenwriting in the past (I wrote two screenplays in my 20s—unproduced of course!) and was reading an article on screenwriting a few years back. The author of the article suggested a screenwriting exercise: to come up with four, one-sentence movie ideas—the kind of one-sentence pitch that writers make to Hollywood studio execs. The lesson was that you don’t have a good movie idea if you can’t describe the story in one sentence. That is what Hollywood execs look for. Think of the one-sentence movie descriptions you see in TV Guide. The writer suggested coming up with four ideas and then picking one to actually write as a screenplay. So I came up with four ideas. The first three were high-concept, popcorn movies. An action movie, a science fiction movie, and a comedy. I thought they were all pretty decent ideas, but they weren’t necessarily original.
The fourth idea came out of the blue. My one-sentence idea was: “Three New York Beatles fans struggle with the dawn of a new decade in the days leading up to John Lennon’s assassination.”
So I looked at my four ideas and tried to decide which one to write. And every time I thought about it, my heart kept coming back to the John Lennon idea. It was the least commercial of the four ideas, but after ruminating for a while, I decided that the first three ideas were nice, but the Lennon idea was the one I had to write.
As a New Yorker who was thirteen when Lennon was killed, that whole period in New York after he died was so seared into my memory that it felt to me like it happened yesterday. And it always seemed to me that New Yorkers were affected by his death more than people anywhere else. The fact that John Lennon could have lived anywhere—but he chose to live in New York and had become a part of the fabric of his neighborhood in Manhattan. I don’t think to this day that New Yorkers who loved Lennon have ever gotten over it. That is what I wanted to write about. So I wrote the screenplay and then used that as the basis for the novella.
Q: Have you ever seen any of the surviving Beatles in concert?
Michael: I saw Paul in 1994 at Giants Stadium and then again a few years ago at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
Q: Has John Lennon’s murder had a lasting impact on you? If so, in what way?
Michael: Yes, definitely. For one, it still makes me angry when I think about what happened to him. Yes there is sadness of course, but also anger in the way that he died. I’ve spoken to other Beatles fans who have said the same thing. Had John Lennon died of a heart attack, or had been hit by bus, the whole thing would have a different feel. That he was gunned down by a crazed fan who traveled halfway around the globe with the express purpose of killing him—that is where the anger comes from and what has always made the tragedy so much more painful. His death is also the thing that ironically made me a Beatles fan. I was a 13-year-old who was vaguely aware of who the Beatles were and I knew that the guy in Wings was a Beatle. What I didn’t know was that my Frank Sinatra-loving mother was a secret Beatles fan. And when I watched her almost faint when she heard the news of her death, it was a shock. That and the wall-to-wall news coverage in New York of Lennon’s murder turned me on to the Beatles. I used this scenario for one of the characters in the book.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your writing process. Which aspects do you enjoy and which do you struggle with?
Michael: I wish I had a more set writing process than I do. I work long hours at my “real” job to go along with a long daily commute, so my biggest obstacle to writing is just finding the time to do it. And when I do, it is never at any kind of set time and place. It is really whenever I can squeeze in some time. Definitely not ideal! That being the case, I lean on my screenwriting training. When you write a screenplay you have to map out the entire script almost scene-by-scene before you write one word. And you very much need to know the ending of your story. So I’ve taken that into my fiction writing. I know a lot of writers who start a novel have a general idea of where the story is going and then they let the story lead them where it goes. With the limited time that I have to write, I really need to map out the whole story ahead of time. This way I can write the story in short bursts because I already know exactly where the story is going and how it ends.
When I sat down to write Images of Broken Light I actually wrote the last sentence of the book first. Then I went back to the beginning and started the book, always keeping that last sentence in mind, with everything I wrote building to that moment at the end. I recently read an article by Stephen King where he said he likes to have a general idea of where his story is going and then he lets the story take him along the rest of the way. But in the same article he said he knows a famous writer who always writes the last sentence of his books first! And I thought, wow, I’m not the only one!
Q: Aside from being a Beatles fan and a New York Yankees fan, you’re also quite the James Bond enthusiast. Tell us about your book The Spy Who Thrilled Us.
Michael: Yes, I am a James Bond geek and have been since I was about five years old. My brother and I are movie buffs. He has now written seven books on classic movies. When his first book came out and I went to his book party, everyone at the party kept asking me, “When are you going to write your book on James Bond?” And I thought to myself, why not? If anyone was going to write a book about the James Bond films, it should be someone like me. So I decided to write a “best of” book on the films that allowed me to sort of geek out and give my opinions on every aspect of those films. It was a fun book to write.
Q: What’s next for you as a writer?
Michael: I’m not sure yet. I have two ideas that I am toying with. One is an idea loosely based on my college days. I’ve made a lot of notes on it and I think there is a book in there. But it is a very personal story and I don’t know if I’m ready to write it yet. I’m also not sure if I should write it as fiction or non-fiction. The other one is an idea for a horror story that just came into my head recently. My wife is wondering why I can’t find a genre I like and just stick to it. Beatles? James Bond? Now horror? I don’t know, I guess I’m all over the place!
One of our most treasured friends in Montana is Richard S. Wheeler, an author of impeccable grace and almost unbelievable output. Over a 40-plus year career as a novelist, he's published more than 80 titles.
In recent months, he has re-released his memoir, An Accidental Novelist, which we find to be a most remarkable book. In it, Richard writes vividly and honestly and lovingly about the writing life, including his marriage to Sue Hart, a longtime professor at Montana State University Billings who had a profound influence on Craig. (Click here for the remarks Craig gave at her memorial service in 2014.)
Richard is a wonderful writer. More important, he's a stellar human being. We're thrilled to share this Q&A that Craig conducted with him.
You recently released a new edition of your memoir, AN ACCIDENTAL NOVELIST. Did you do any revising/updating from the version that was originally published 10 years ago?
Only a new dedication to my late wife, Sue, including her birth and death dates, but I didn't make any text changes about our late-life marriage.
You write vividly of past professional lives—journalist, book editor, ranch hand, etc. How did those things prepare you for the writer's life?
Hemingway considered journalism a form of literary apprenticeship, and so do I. Book editing gave me critical insights into the art of writing. But most importantly, my forays into other occupations, such as wrangling horses, opened the real world to me. The worst thing a future writer can do is hang around literary circles. Go spend a day witching water in drylands, and write about it.
In your experience, how much do nature and nurturing come to bear in the development of a writer? Do you consider yourself innately talented or did you become what you are?
I have few natural skills as a storyteller and had to learn all that from the roots up. Attending genre fiction conventions helped. My mother had been an English teacher, and I did absorb some grammar. There's no one route to success. Each person needs to cobble together the gifts and habits that will help conquer a difficult and competitive field. I consider Jack London's life an example of shaping a career out of what you're born with.
One of my favorite parts of the book delves into how you and your late, deeply loved wife, Sue Hart, came to the decision to marry and how to live as married people. How did the two of you make that work?
Distance and sovereignty. We had separate homes, careers and incomes, but in common a love of writing, literature, and tastes. We'd known each other for decades, but by the time we talked of marriage we were old and didn't want to build anew, like young couples. So we lived separate lives, and each meeting was a honeymoon.
You're an astute commentator on how publishing used to be vs. what it is now. What's your advice to a nascent writer?
Go with the new. I can offer nothing of value to aspiring writers. My world is now history. Five minutes with you would help an aspiring writer more than an entire book from me. I do have one prejudice, though: steer clear of all master of fine arts education. And in particular, avoid all MFA orthodoxy.
You made your reputation and your living as a writer of genre fiction, which is a world apart from the literary-fiction sensibility that dominates most university settings. Have you made peace with that lack of critical recognition, and if so, how?
I used to grumble at academics. I was ready to show them genre novels that contained every quality ascribed to literary fiction. But recently I've concluded that literary and popular fiction are two different worlds. They appeal to different types of readers, and each has its strengths and weaknesses. Where did that lead me? I quit being embarrassed about being an author of popular fiction, and I no longer cared whether critics and academics consigned my writing to oblivion. I reach people who are bored by literary novels. That's a happy place to be at the end of my life.
You read widely. What do you make of today's fiction?
I can't generalize here. I'm seeing some of the best fiction I've read in years, and the best of it doesn't pigeonhole as literary or popular. Someone's written a compelling story. And yes, I'm talking about your work.
What's your own assessment of the career you've had?
I earned a living in a field where almost no one does.
Read more about Richard at his Wikipedia entry.
His considerable backlist can be found here.
Montana Quarterly magazine is one of the true treasures of the state we live in. And we're not alone in counting ourselves lucky to have it. If not for the vision and gumption of longtime Montana journalist Scott McMillion, it would no longer be with us.
A few years ago, the Quarterly's previous operator, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, was poised to shutter the magazine in a cost-cutting move. McMillion, who'd been a senior writer with the Chronicle and a regular Quarterly contributor, stepped in with some investors and rescued it from the scrap heap, never missing an issue. In the summer of 2013, as Craig was preparing to leave daily newspaper work for a full-time writing and freelance career, he signed on with McMillion as the magazine's design director. He'd already been an occasional contributor of short stories, and he relished the chance to join the masthead.
They've been at it ever since.
Here, then, is Craig, with the rest of the story...
The reason the Quarterly cuts such a distinctive figure in Montana is that no other magazine in the state—and there are many—does exactly what it does. The magazine's central mission rests on two tent poles.
The first is that it produces deep, meaningful journalism about real life here, and it does so in a broad way—daring, inventive writing; stunning photography; a beneath-the-surface approach to storytelling where it doesn't so much tell you the what of the news but the why. Your daily newspaper can tell you something happened. The Quarterly will dedicate the space and the resources to explaining it.
Second, the Quarterly takes seriously its place in the arts and letters of the state. Every issue includes an author profile and a short story. Some include poems. Artists well-known and obscure are profiled. Every serious bookstore in the state sells the Quarterly, because the magazine means something vital to those stores' customers. And McMillion invests in the coming generation of writers through offering annual Big Snowy Prizes in nonfiction and fiction, work by young Montanans that gets the star treatment in the magazine every summer.
Here's a selection of page spreads from past issues of the magazine. Note how the presentation of the magazine is driven by the words and the images, as any well-designed publication should be. We endeavor for a clean, quiet look, one where there are no look-at-me design flourishes, because they're not necessary. The work of Montana's finest writers, photographers, and artists does all the talking.
Another reason for the success of the Quarterly, I think, is that McMillion is committed to continually putting out a superior product in print even as the world of daily journalism increasingly shifts to online. He has avoided the great conundrum of the daily newspaper, where most of the money is made in print (although less and less every quarter) while most of the readership gains are online. The Quarterly, not tethered to that daily reality, preserves itself as an experience best left to the tactile pleasures of reading on paper. And unlike the daily newspaper, which is fodder for recycling every 24 hours, research shows that the Quarterly's readers keep the issues long after they come out, returning again and again to the top-notch writing and the arresting photography. That's good news for us at the magazine, and good news for our advertisers, who can see the benefits of their ad buy paying off for months or years after the fact.
Working on the Quarterly—now 15 issues and counting for me—has been a singular joy in my professional career. It brings together a place I love and work I'm passionate about doing, all under the auspices of a magazine that I believe in. Every quarter, as I hunker down on another issue, I think I must be the luckiest guy around, getting to work with the best writers, thinkers, and artists my state has to offer.
You know what? I'm right.
Got a favorite magazine? Tell us all about it in the comments section.
Are you a Montanan, or a Montanan at heart? Consider subscribing to Montana Quarterly. You'll love it.
Welcome to the first in an occasional series of posts where we'll look at the elements of effective print design. Our first guinea pig, conveniently, is the next book we'll be releasing through our Missouri Breaks Press imprint: Julep Street, Craig's seventh novel. So, without further ado, here it is:
Julep Street will be released on May 9. And while there are certain creative advantages to an author doing his own design work, settling on a presentation for this book did not come without challenges. For one thing, it's an intensely interior work of fiction; most of the struggles of the protagonist, laid-off newspaper editor Carson McCullough, are against his own sense of regret, loss, and mortality. While there's no shortage of action, most of the physicality is born of Carson's interior degradation. And that can be a difficult theme to capture in any sort of overt way.
When we found this luminous photo of a bridge by Greg Kushmerek, we knew we had a winner. It's almost the perfect image for a book cover, with light and dark to provide contrast with the type. It's alluring (god, that lighting on the undercarriage of the bridge). Thematically, it's a strong fit, too. The bridge in the unnamed, fictitious Kentucky town where Carson lives has literal and metaphorical resonance in his life and in his story. It's the way out that he never took. It's also the vantage point for all the perspective he never appreciated.
For any book that's going to be sold in bookstores and online--and that's pretty much any book—cover creation comes with some built-in practical considerations. The design has to be eye-grabbing enough to demand attention at full size and color. And it has to communicate quickly in an online world where it appears at thumbnail size and often in black-and-white.
Let's see how the Julep Street cover stacks up in the latter environment:
OK, so in black-and-white, it's a dark cover (hard not to be when the image is a nighttime shot). But it's leavened considerably by the lighter movement of the bridge and by the white typography that still pops hard off the image. While nothing beats the gorgeous lighting and contrast of the full-color image, the black-and-white thumbnail version serves its main purpose: to stop a potential reader and say, "Hey, take a closer look at me."
Let's talk a bit about typography
In designing a book cover, the font the designer chooses, the size at which it's rendered, the color, the treatment (lowercase, small caps, all capital letters, whatever) all communicate something about what's on the pages inside.
For Julep Street, we wanted simplicity and elegance. It's a work of commercial fiction, but with a literary bent, so we chose a font (Bodoni Book, one of Craig's favorites) that is clean and well-weighted, that has an elegant italic option (see the lovely endorsement by Louise Beech), and doesn't lose its attractiveness at a larger size.
For a book with a different tone, a different font choice would have been in order. Consider how the combination of typography and imagery helps sell these books, all from different genres and all by authors we greatly admire:
Notice how everything works together to convey a strong sense of what's inside, whether it's romance, adventure, danger, the seamy underbelly of the city, or the poetry of the physical world. The B.J. Daniels book, for instance, is upfront in its intention to court readers of romance: Here's a strapping young cowboy who'd be fun in the sack (hey, why be coy?). Contrast that with the cover for Allen Morris Jones's A Bloom of Bones, a literary novel of quiet lyricism. All five of these covers are effective ambassadors for the work within.
We'd like to think we achieved the same objective with Julep Street: that if you pick up this book, you're going to bear witness to a work that is, in the words of Louise Beech, "full of gorgeous shade and light."
What's your favorite book cover, and why did it resonate with you? Tell us about it in the comments.
Do you have a design project that needs to communicate clearly with its audience? Contact us today. We'd love to work with you.
Here’s the deal: we love stories.
Between the two of us, we’ve been full-time storytellers for most of our lives, albeit in different capacities. Craig’s job was to tell a news story. Elisa’s job was to help students tell their own stories, be it in the form of a case study, a research proposal, or a personal essay. Then, around the same time, we both became full-time novelists.
As authors, we write novels with dynamic characters, dialogue you can eavesdrop on, and places you can reach out and touch. As readers, we feel most at home in bookstores and libraries, houses with a bookcase in every room and a book on every table. As humans, we dig movies and television shows and documentaries and plays and live music concerts, each one a story in one medium or another.
We are a storytelling couple. But we are also part of a storytelling culture.
Here’s the other deal: being an author, like so many other artistic endeavors, is a feast-or-famine business. The markets and trends change. If you’re lucky enough to make it to the top, it’s often difficult to stay there.
We wanted something to tide us over in anticipation of the lean times. But it couldn’t just be, you know, a job. The kind that keeps 9-to-5 hours and has bosses and two weeks’ vacation and requires a parking pass. (Cue Jerry Seinfeld: “Not that there’s anything wrong with that…”) When you’ve been out of that bubble for a long time, it’s hard to get back in. More important, we both feel strongly that work isn’t just something we do. It has to speak to a central part of who we are.
So we took inventory and assessed what we do well:
We’re good writers.
We’re good editors.
He’s a good designer.
She's a good teacher.
We’re good collaborators.
Our skills complemented each other. Moreover, what we do best are also the things we enjoy the most.
And we’re good at being together.
And so we realized that we wanted to help others tell their stories. Together.
Whether you are an author who needs help making your story—and your book—the best it can be, own a business that wants to better connect with its customers, or work for an organization that wants its members to better connect with each other, we can serve you.
We're in the business of telling stories, across a wide range of media. Here's how we do what we do.