Michael DeVault’s In My Office!
My Interview with MICHAEL DeVAULT!
I am excited to have you join us today. I think my readers will enjoy this interview as you have such an extensive background in writing. From journalism to teaching literature to published author – we should get started! J
1. I always begin with one of my favorite questions – please tell us how you’d describe yourself?
I’m a dilettante. I love that word, dilettante, because it carries with it so much connotation – very little of it good. But I’m a playful know-it-all who likes to be able to converse about subjects far and wide, I do about 9 things at once, and I try to be the master of multiple domains. Sometimes, I don’t always succeed. I think that’s one of the reasons I’m able to pull off some of the stories I write.
2. This first set of questions will feature you as a reader. Having read the various genres you enjoyed as a youth, I am really interested in learning more.
· I wasn’t surprised to read you enjoyed the classics, pop fiction, sci-fi… that’s fairly normal. What caught me was that you enjoyed reading religious works and non-fiction. How did you get into these aspects of literature?
o Is ‘no comment’ a fair answer? (laughs)
o I grew up bouncing between my grandparents, my mother, and a host of friends and neighbors. When I was a young child, the biggest influence in my life was my maternal great-grandfather, a pastor in a Pentecostal church in Louisiana. Later, I divided time between an atheist and a Southern Baptist minister’s house.
o By the time I got to college, I had read the Bible cover-to-cover – including Matthew Henry’s commentary on the subjects at hand and the complete canon of Ayn Rand’s work. And I didn’t know what the fuck I wanted to do when I “grew up” – other than write. I flailed about in college from theatre to business to biology to music, eventually settling on English – with minors in History and Anthropology. How’s that for literary training?
o I think, though, I have my grandmother’s inquisitive mind. When she died, she had read all of the classics – and I mean classics like Plato, Aristotle, Aristophanes, St. Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas. If it was a book, chances are she had read it.
Ø Why types of religious works did you gravitate towards, and why?
§ I think I gravitate towards books that bring a new perspective to the world. Whether it’s a unique take on Christianity that forces me to question what I knew and learned in Seminary (Yes, Ethel, I went to Seminary), or a work that brings to light an obscure practice somewhere, I find people of faith fascinating.
§ I’ve been re-reading some of the modern Buddhist masters lately – Thich Nhat Hanh and Lama Surya Das to name two. And, I, finally, undertook a critical read of the Baghavad Gita last year ahead of teaching it in a literature course.
Ø What type of non-fiction did you enjoy – biographies, newspapers, magazine – and what did you specifically like about them?
§ I love science biographies and accounts of discovery. I waded through the science of the atomic bomb with “The Making of the Atomic Bomb,” by Richard Rhodes. I also loved Walter Isaacson’s “Einstein” and have recently been chipping away at “Hidden Figures” by Margot Lee Shetterly – just a beautiful book, and I’m taking my time with it.
· Are there any authors that influenced you more than others? If so, who are they, and why’d they inspire you?
o Hands down, Ayn Rand. I’m not quite an objectivist, but I love her depiction of heroes. I balance that with a healthy dose of Hemingway and the modernists, because I think the truth lies somewhere in between. When we’re able to have heroes who are at once heroic and flawed, then I think we’ll start moving forward again.
· Do you have a favorite genre or literary medium? If so, what is it, and why do you prefer it?
o I tend to write general literary fiction, though I envy people who can transcend genre. I wish I were able to write a great sci-fi novel or a caper novel. But so far, that’s been a dry well.
· How did your experiences as a reader encourage your career choices?
o I love the written word, if only because I think it has far more power to change the world than pretty much any other human endeavor.
o Everything I read influences me in some way, however minor, to be just that much better.
3. Yep, that last question was a Segway! JNot only do you hold an MFA in Creative Writing, but you have worked as a freelance writer and author while teaching at the college level. I want to address your various positions in the writingworld in these next questions.
· What led you to become a teacher, and why did you decide to focus your efforts at the college level?
o I love teaching and being around young, inquisitive minds. Every time I step into the classroom, I’m impressed in some new way that, no matter how bad things get – and let’s be honest. My generation is the one that gave us Trump and Clinton and real Nazis marching in the streets – this next generation has something special going for it. These cats have game, they see through all of the bullshit on the television and Facebook, and in spite of a bit of latent adolescence, they manage to strike genuine a whole lot faster, younger, and stronger than my generation ever did.
Ø I have a friend who’s a professional teacher, as well as a bestselling romance author. This person chooses to write under a pen name so their two careers don’t collide. Had you ever done this? Why, or why not?
§ I don’t write under a pen name, though I understand why some do. I spent too long in the media as a newspaper reporter and editor for my opinions to be secret – and that’s been a bit of a challenge personally and professionally from time-to-time. I’ve lived my entire life “out loud,” so to speak.
§ These days, when I go in for an interview – for a job at a college or a freelance gig or whatever – I make sure the interviewers go to my Facebook page and Twitter, they read my books or my editorials or my blog, and they know what they’re getting.
§ I’m too old and have been doing this for too long to start trying to hide what I believe in a pseudonym. Besides, I think people would see through it pretty quickly. I have kind of a loud voice.
Ø How do you feel your writing career has been enhanced by your teaching career, and vice versa?
§ I love teaching, and I love writing. Writing feeds the creative parts of my brain and teaching nurtures the side of me that likes to be of service to others. At the same time, they both keep me aware of my task – of all of our tasks as humans, really – to make some lasting contribution to the world, to leave it a better place than we found it if we can, and to not fuck it up too badly if we can’t.
· You have interviewed many famous people, including Former President, Bill Clinton. How did you get these opportunities?
o Believe it or not, President Clinton was my very first assignment as a working writer. Talk about ‘down hill from there!’ I was young, naïve, and didn’t know any better. I was a content creator for a small internet service provider and he was the Internet President, so I called the White House and pitched the story. Three days later, there I was with a disposable camera and a Radio Shack tape recorder sandwiched between CNN and ABC News on the press stand. I even managed to get a question off, though he didn’t answer it. A few years later, when I actually got to meet and interview him, he remembered the event we were both at.
o Part of landing the “big get” interviews is just having the audacity to ask, I think. That’s certainly been the case for much of my career as a journalist. Knowing how to pick up the phone and ask for the interview in a way that doesn’t quite give the gatekeepers an out helps. I’m ashamed to say that, on more than a few occasions, I simply just bugged the hell out of the gatekeepers until they’d let me move into their houses if I’d just shut up about it. That’s part of the job.
· How does writing for a magazine differ from writing a novel or anthology?
o Writing for a magazine or newspaper is transactional. The story isn’t your creation, and it’s got such a short shelf-life as a creative project. For me, a magazine feature – say 2,500 words or so – is a quick sprint up the stairs. A novel? That’s a cross-country trek. It’s a completely different set of creative muscles.
· What genre or writing style do you prefer, and why?
o I tend to gravitate towards the 3rd person novel with a limited narrator, and I’m not sure why. In Joe Morton, for example, I couldn’t get away from the voice of Sam Elliott as the narrator. The narrator even refers to himself as a part of the community on more than one occasion.
o There’s just something interesting about a 3rd person narrator who doesn’t know everything and knows that. It takes irony to a different level.
o That being said, of my four novels, I’ve varied the voice every time. First person, third person limited, and third person omniscient all found their way.
4. Freelance writing, to me, isn’t all that different than being an indie author. I mean, they are both a form of independent writing. Do you feel there are any drawbacks to being independent? If so, what, and why?
Money. Or the lack thereof.
I met a famous author, one of my literary heroes and someone, who if I named her, everyone would recognize. When I met her, I told her, “Your book changed my life.”
She asked how, adding, “It changed my life, too.”
I immediately answered her question about its impact on my life, “It made me want to be a better writer. How did it change your life?”
She laughed. “Well, I didn’t have money, I wrote the book, and then I had money.”
It’s a little crass, but there is truth to it. When you’re attached to a major publisher, or a magazine as a staff writer, there’s a consistency of money that makes life a little easier. When you’re independent, you’ve kind of got to bust your ass. But that’s okay, because I like to bust my ass.
5. Okay, now, I want to go a little off topic, if we can. Having lived an array of lives, I, too, have a past as a stage actress. I read you have been an actor, so I wanted to delve into this area a little, just to satisfy my own curiosity (Hey, it’s my blog, after all).
· Were you trained in acting or did you come by it naturally?
o It was accidental. I had a crush on a girl and she wanted to play Lady Anne to my Richard III. Fifteen years later, I had a lot of fun and a lot of great stories.
· Were you strictly a stage actor, or had you done any film?
o Stage only, and always at an amateur or community theatre level.
· What did you enjoy the most about acting?
o I enjoyed performing and losing myself in a character. That, and the anticipation of the curtain rising. You can feel the air move away from you when the curtain rises and the lights come up, and that’s a feeling that doesn’t get old.
· How do you feel your love of literature impacted your acting, if at all?
o I always wanted to play a hero and was almost doggedly typecast as a villain. That’s in part, I think, because I was kind of one-dimensional as an actor. It was a fun avocation, but had I decided to pursue it professionally, I’d probably be the best waiter in New York by now.
6. What can we expect to see from you over the coming year?
I, just this month, launched a publishing imprintwith a partner in Los Angeles. We’re focusing on a unique opportunity afforded to the two of us by our work in public relations and management. It’s a little too early to reveal the whole bowl of wax just yet, but we’ve got a great team assembled, three projects in the works for publication in the next 18 months, and a pretty good chance at a cornered market.
· Do you have goals you set for yourself, and if so, what are they?
o I don’t, really. I mean, beyond ‘don’t fuck up.’
o I used to do the five-year plan thing over and over, and over again. I can’t think of one single goal from any five-year plan I ever made that I actually achieved. So eventually, I just stopped making them. I want to write books. I want to get better as a writer. I want to grow professionally and personally. But beyond that? I don’t set specifics for myself, at least not in the traditional, “I want to write the great American novel” or “I want to make a million bucks” sort of goals.
o It drives my parents crazy, but I mean…since I abandoned the five-year goal making, I’ve interviewed two presidents, three Oscar nominees, and the Dalai Lama, written four novels, and started a publishing company. So I must be doing something right. Right?
· What is your current WIP?
o I’m working on a novel, The Associated Risks of Reentry, a biography of an artist, and another series of novels on spec for a publisher that, sadly, I can’t talk about right now. Stay tuned! It’s going to be a wild few years.
Thanks again. It was a lot of fun chatting with you. I feel a kindred spirit – LOL J I wish you all the best in everything you undertake!
Novelist, Essayist, & (recovering) Journalist
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Fascinating interview. He makes my life look so dull. I loved Ayn Rand to, except for her idea of violence in the sexual act. I still recommend her books though. Since I couldn't afford college, my studies of other religions weren't be those intellectuals. It is probably why I stayed where I am as the books I read from Concordia Publishing were writing by masters. My paternal grandfather's book fascinated me as a child. I couldn't read it as it was in Deutsche. Good luck with the imprint publishing.