Category: Midtown Reader

Author Interview: Author talks family history, inspirations ahead of Midtown Reader visit

“My mother taught me to read when I was five years old. It took six weeks, and I became a voracious reader.”

That’s how Stuart Woods, the author of more than 75 novels, explained his start to me—I although as it turned out, it was a short start.

Stuart will be at Midtown Reader on Thursday, Oct. 17, to talk about his newest thriller, “Stealth.”

“I made a stab at a novel when I was 9 years old, but I only got about three pages in,” he said. “It was hard, so I gave it up.”

If that had been the end of his fascination with writing, readers wouldn’t have been able to enjoy his collection of fast-paced, action-packed thrillers that have collectively sold millions of copies around the world. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case.

“When I was 10, I was at my grandmother’s house and I found a box with a police chief’s badge, half shot away and covered in what I thought was blood,” he said. “My aunt told me it belonged to my grandfather, who was the Chief of Police in our small Georgia town and who was killed in the line of duty.”

This discovery eventually became the inspiration for his first novel, “Chiefs,” which Woods said is his favorite of the books he has written.

Based on his family history, it was fulfilling to finish. But it took Woods about eight years to complete — six longer than he would have preferred. Now he writes four books a year, thanks in part to the discipline he learned during his 10 years spent in advertising.

“The most valuable skill a writer can have is the ability to plant one’s ass in a chair and write 1,500 words every day, whether you want to or not,” he said. “And the best cure for writer’s block is to just write something.”

At a pace of four books per year, Woods relies on his skills of improvisation to bring characters and scenes to life.

He said he starts with a blank screen and writes a scene, then evaluates it the next day and writes another scene, which eventually catapults him into his next story idea. He compared it to working on a jigsaw puzzle but in reverse, cutting out the shapes of the pieces as you go along.

“Once I have the events in my head it all fits together,” he explained, “although my characters are always turning left when I thought they would turn right.”

And as for book recommendations from the still voracious reader? Woods didn’t hesitate.

“Read everything by Mark Twain,” he said. “He’s the best writer this country has ever produced, and the funniest.”

This article was first published in the Tallahassee Democrat.

Author Interview: Longmire series author Craig Johnson rides into town for book signing

In the era of Live PD and body cameras, law enforcement has become increasingly more reliant on cutting edge technology. But at its core, enforcing the law is based on people and relationships. And nowhere is that more evident than in Craig Johnson’s Longmire collection of novels, which is also the basis of the popular Netflix series by the same name.

Johnson will be in Tallahassee for a book signing and Evening with Craig Johnson at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Holy Comforter.

Johnson said he got the idea after talking to two different law enforcement agencies about their use of technology, and decided he wanted to focus on character and place—specifically, the sheriff of a sparsely populated county in the least populated state, Wyoming.

“Sheriffing is a very community-oriented form of law-enforcement,” explained Johnson. “I did a lot of ride-alongs with sheriffs in Wyoming and Montana, and the phrase they used was ‘my people.’”

Protagonist Walt Longmire, he decided, would be a decent man. And according to Johnson, decent isn’t a word you hear much these days, but it’s an important one, especially in law enforcement. That’s important to Johnson.

“I write what I refer to as ‘socially responsible crime fiction’—I’m not just looking to pile up bodies like cord wood, but to have something important to say that will resonate with readers,” he said. “To do that, I outline my books very carefully.”

With 15 novels under his belt in the Longmire series and more than 3 million books sold, Johnson certainly has a formula that works. But he doesn’t rest on those laurels. Each book, he said, is a mountain you’re going to have to climb, but each one should be different from all of the others. The challenge, he acknowledged, is keeping the storytelling fresh.

Land of Wolves, the newest book in the Longmire series, follows Sheriff Longmire through his investigation into the death of a shepherd and his interactions with a pack of wolves. For such a serious plot, Johnson said, he’s always surprised by how much humor ends up in the story, but he said that comes from getting the characters into situations and letting them have their say.

“Fortunately, writing a book isn’t a destination, but more of a journey; you may change directions and surprise yourself,” he said. “If you do that, you have a good chance of surprising the reader, too.”

His journey to becoming a professional author was also something of a surprise. Wanting to be a writer, he explained, is like wanting to be an astronaut. The odds are so against you, you might as well not tell anybody; that way if you succeed, it comes as a surprise.

“I came from a family of oral storytellers and I was the worst one, so I thought that maybe if I wrote [my stories] down it would give me an advantage,” he recalled. “I wrote the first Walt Longmire book, The Cold Dish, and it got picked up by a big agent in New York who passed me over to Viking/Penguin and a year later I was on the bookshelves. Sometimes lightning strikes.”

This article was first published in the Tallahassee Democrat.

Author Interview: New novel on hurricanes brings Mary Alice Monroe to town for library talk

Mary Alice Monroe knew from an early age that she wanted to be a writer. Growing up with nine siblings fostered her imagination, as she would often join her brothers and sisters in writing stories, plays and musicals. But it wasn’t until she found herself on bed rest during a difficult pregnancy that she finally found the time to write her first novel.

Now, 22 novels and two picture books later, it’s safe to say she’s found her calling. But for Monroe, it’s about more than just telling stories. After her fifth novel, she moved to South Carolina, joined the island turtle team…and had something of an epiphany.

“I decided my next book would be a vehicle to spread awareness about sea turtles,” she said. “I knew my passion and awareness would translate into emotions for my readers, and with so many species in trouble there’s a real sense of urgency.”

Monroe’s newest novel, “The Summer Guests,” is set against a backdrop all too familiar for Tallahassee: an approaching hurricane and widespread evacuations. Think the evacuations of Hurricane Irma and the threat of Hurricane Michael rolled together. Instead of sea turtles, the featured animals in this story are horses — whose caretakers face the monumental task of safely moving their very large, powerful and valuable cargo out of the storm’s path.

“I think the real question of the story is when you evacuate, what do you take? What do you really value?” Monroe said. “After 20 years of hurricanes, I’ve learned I throw my animals in the car. The rest is just stuff. It’s the memories and relationships that matter the most.”

Relationships are the focal point of the story; Monroe likes to raise questions in all of her novels about human relationships with animals and nature and how those relationships are intertwined.

“I hope this story inspires,” she said. “And I love the fact that my readers can sit on a beach and be in the world in the novel.”

As for inspiration, Monroe offered a few words of advice for aspiring authors.

“Being born with a talent to write is a gift, but to be published you have to hone your craft,” she said. “And listen to your editor. Your mother will love every word you’ve ever written. Your editor will make it better.”

Monroe also encouraged people to become active volunteers in their communities, noting volunteering has been the bedrock of her career. For more information on volunteer opportunities, especially as the 2019 hurricane season kicks off, please visit

This article was first published in the Tallahassee Democrat.

Meet the Illustrator: Dan Hanna

More often than not, the books we read as adults are unillustrated (and what a shame!). But children’s books still incorporate the magic of imagery, and The Pout-Pout Fish series is no different. And picture books have always been important to Dan Hanna, the illustrator of the famous Mr. Fish.

“When I look back on my life and the decisions I’ve made, I’ve come to realize the picture books I saw as a child have affected me deeply,” he said. “Children’s books, I think, are the most powerful books in the world. They plant seeds that play a big part in who you become.”

Hanna’s art in the books is instantly recognizable, and he explained that the main character is based on a real fish he encountered on a scuba diving trip in Fiji.

“There was a pudgy little fish about the size of my fist. I swam right up to him, just inches from his face, and he stared right back at me with his big pouty lips,” he said. “Little did I know that funny fellow was destined to become Mr. Fish, the main character from the books.”

Perhaps one of the reasons Hanna’s style is so distinctive is the time and effort he spent refining it. His goal, he said, was to develop a style that looked different than what he’d been seeing in other picture books.

Now, when he gets a new manuscript from author Deborah Diesen, he works to create images that are, in his words, “rich and detailed enough so the reader stands a good chance of seeing something new if/when they revisit the book.” He also never communicates directly with Diesen during the entire process; their editor acts as an intermediary.

He may not talk to Diesen during the illustrating process, but he said one of the most surprising things about illustrating the stories is how easy it is to start talking to himself…and what great conversations he’s had.

His path to becoming a children’s book illustrator was somewhat circuitous; he attended college first for film and then switched to computer science. After college he started working with computer graphics and eventually saved enough money to go back to school at CalArts for a degree in Experimental Animation. Ten years later, the company he was working for went out of business so he decided to reach for his dream: children’s books.

Perseverance was key to the journey. It took over five years of writing and illustrating his own stories, submitting them to publishers and getting rejected before he finally got the Pout-Pout Fish job. Hanna also said it’s important to have faith in your own abilities, and that’s it’s perfectly ok to listen to criticism and advice from people without following it.

“Try things, fail, make mistakes and learn! Be adventurous and fearless,” he said. “Oh, and open up a Roth IRA account as soon as possible and contribute to it as much as you can.”

This article was first published by Midtown Reader.

The Big Bend Hospice Presents: Jason Rosenthal

“Everyone thinks it’s just a picture book, but what we’ve found is that it isn’t just a book for children,” Jason Rosenthal told me over the phone. “There’s a breadth and depth this book offers that I could see being relevant at any stage of life.”

He’s talking about Dear Boy, a book he authored with his daughter Paris as a companion book to one written by Paris and her mother, Amy Krouse Rosenthal, before Amy passed away in 2017.

Working on Dear Boy with Paris, Jason said, really confirmed what he already knew: that Paris has a very special ability to capture immense concepts and simplify them in just a few words. As an example, he pointed me to the page in the book that says, “Yes means yes, and everything else means no.”

It’s a statement that does seem so simple, so clear, yet it’s one people struggle with on a daily basis. As Jason said, it could be for parents and their kids just as much as it could apply to the conversation about consent taking place on college campuses across the nation. As we spoke, I could hear in his voice the pride he has in his daughter.

Writing the book was also part of the healing process in the wake of Amy’s passing. Sometimes, Jason said, it was like there were three people writing the book because Amy felt so near. And there are specific references to her work throughout the book, as both Jason and Paris tried to channel Amy’s process whenever possible.

One overt reference is the use of one of Amy’s favorite phrases: “Always trust magic.” It’s a beautiful reminder, from a picture book that isn’t just a children’s book, of the need to let go every now and then and trust in something a little inexplicable, a little unusual and a little extraordinary.

This article was first published by Midtown Reader.

Author Interview: Elizabeth Stuckey-French at Midtown Reader

Upon first glance, anything called The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady seems like a fairly far-fetched premise, perhaps even science-fictiony. But sometimes facts truly are stranger than fiction.

Elizabeth Stuckey-French’s latest novel is a fictional tale, but it is based entirely on a set of rather gruesome facts from our nation’s medical history. During the Cold War, doctors were pressured by the Department of Defense to measure how much radiation exposure someone could survive, ostensibly to prepare for an imminent Russian attack. Stuckey-French’s novel introduces us to a woman who was on the receiving end of these treatments and watched her daughter die of cancer as a direct result.

The story follows the protagonist on a rather madcap adventure as she attempts to exact revenge on the doctor who performed the treatments. Despite the heavy premise of the book, the narrative is an often hilarious romp through a fictional Tallahassee neighborhood, addressing significant topics about family dynamics along the way.

Stuckey-French has just finished another novel, a murder mystery set in a 1960’s Home Ec Practice House on a college campus. Her trademark mix of serious and silly, said Stuckey-French, is hard-won.

“I remember going to a ballet and thinking the performance looked so fluid and effortless, but we didn’t see all the hard work it took to make it look that way,” she said. “I think the same thing is true for writing—people probably don’t realize how hard it is. You read a good book and you think it must’ve come easily. It hardly ever does.”

Stuckey-French said she’s pretty sure most people start writing fiction with confidence, but when their first effort doesn’t match their ideas or isn’t very good, they give up.

“You have to be willing to really work at it,” she said. “Writers write because they can’t not write. If that’s not true of you, you might want to try something else.”

Stuckey-French found her way into writing fiction by first writing for a public relations newsletter, then quickly realizing she liked making things up more than writing about facts. Once she took a fiction writing course, she was hooked.

“In hindsight, that may have made me appreciate the outcome more,” she said. And after reading The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady, I have to admit I appreciate the outcome, too.

This article was first published by Midtown Reader.

Author Interview: Colleen Oakley at Midtown Reader

Colleen Oakley’s recent visit to the Midtown Reader felt like a super chill book club meeting; except, you know, with the author herself leading the discussion. There we were, sitting in the cozy upstairs space with Colleen, her mother, several of her mother’s friends, and a few local authors, chatting about what inspired each of Colleen’s four novels and the role her mother plays in the early editing process of each book.

“When I turn in a book, it’s pretty polished because my mom does my early editing,” said Colleen. About her third novel, You Were There Too, which is due out in early 2020… “We only had to change seven words once it was turned in.”

It’s clear the two women have a very special relationship. Kathy Oakley participated in the discussion almost as much as her daughter, especially when someone in the audience asked about Colleen’s writing process and whether she was very disciplined. Kathy snorted, audibly.

Colleen’s books all have a similar thread – they’re inspired (or triggered) by some type of medical issue. Her debut novel, Before I Go, was written after she interviewed a young woman dying of breast cancer. Her second novel, Close Enough to Touch, is based on the experience of having one or more incredibly unique (and often devastating) allergies. And her third (and forthcoming) novel tackles the theory of dream telepathy, a fascinating phenomenon that occurs when two people interact with each other in their simultaneous dreams.

And if Colleen’s characters seem especially connected to her, it’s because they are. She said each character lives in her head for about six months before she starts writing their story. When she talks about each one, you almost forget they’re not real people she knows in real life; each one is like a close friend or neighbor to her. This is part of her writing process, she said.

“I always know where I’m starting from and where I want to end up,” she said, telling me she doesn’t really rely on outlines when creating her plot lines. “The challenge isn’t keeping it organized; it’s making it believable.”

One thing she said that was hard for her to believe, initially, was how quickly her debut novel was accepted by a publisher. It was actually the second novel she’d written; the first was never published.

“It was not good,” she said ruefully. “So when my second novel sold in two weeks, it was wildly exciting!”

This is the example she points to when asked what advice she would give her younger self, or other aspiring authors.

“Don’t give up,” she said emphatically. “Keep going, just maybe on a different path.”

You Were There Too is due out in January 2020 and can be pre-ordered at the Midtown Reader.

This article was first published by Midtown Reader.

Author Interview: Paul Sutter: Agent to the Stars

“Basically, I’m holding their hands while blowing their minds.”

This is how cosmologist Paul Sutter explained his book, Your Place in the Universe, to me. On paper, it sounds like something Rajesh Koothrappali from “The Big Bang Theory” would say, followed by the CBS laugh track. But when Sutter says it, he’s earnest and unassuming.

Sutter wrote his book to tell “the fun, long story of this journey” of the cosmic evolution and how we came to understand it. What could be more fun, he said, than trying to understand the universe?

The challenge he encountered while writing the book wasn’t the research or the structure of the manuscript; it was how to talk about something as complex and speculative as the physics of the early universe. A lot of his writing process involved consuming as much information about his topic as possible and then translating the narrative into his own conversational tone.

“The universe and its history are big, messy, and fun to learn about,” he said. “I love talking about what I do and sparking curiosity, especially with kids.”

Sutter said he loves Q&A sessions because he enjoys hearing what people are curious about. And kids, he said, are always asking about throwing various things into black holes. That would be worth the laugh track.

This article was first published by Midtown Reader.

Author Interview: The Biography of a Place: Jack Davis’ The Gulf

Jack Davis loves the Gulf of Mexico. In fact, he seems to love all coastal bodies of water, having grown up first in the Florida Panhandle and then in the Tampa Bay area. But the Gulf truly holds a special place in his heart; it’s an affection that comes through clearly in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Gulf: The Making of An American Sea.

“Writing this book was a labor of love,” he told me. There was birdsong in the background of our phone conversation. It seemed right, since I was listening to him tell me why he felt compelled to write about this environmental, well, force of nature.

“When I realized no one had written a comprehensive history of the Gulf of Mexico, it shocked the hell out of me,” he said. “It seems to me there has been a real historical amnesia and ignorance. I wanted to bring the Gulf into the American historical experience, where it belongs.”

Writing the biography of a place presents different challenges than writing the biography of a person, Davis said. Without a clear chronology to follow, he struggled with the book’s organizational structure. So, he took a unique approach: he wrote about the Gulf’s many natural characteristics, weaving human stories into each section. Chapter 12 of the book was the first chapter he completed; it recounts the story of artist Walter Anderson and his relationship to the sea.

“I knew Walter would show me the way into the book and how to write it,” Davis said, “and he did.”

Davis also wanted to tell the story of the countless connections the Gulf has to every other part of our nation. For example, the white sugar sand on the beaches in Northwest Florida comes from quartz on the top of the Appalachians, slowly eroded and brought south by the wind, rain and rivers flowing to the Gulf. This is the type of connection Davis loves to tell his readers about, celebrating the Gulf’s unique impact.

It’s fitting that The Gulf won the Pulitzer, just months before Hurricane Michael devastated the book’s namesake area. Davis said he hopes the book will finally bring the Gulf some of the respect it deserves, along with more positive, focused attention—something the area desperately needs right now.

“I have hope for the future of the Gulf,” he said. “The love for the Gulf is evident everywhere; people are so excited this story is finally being told.”

This article was first published by Midtown Reader.

Author Interview: Bringing History to Life with Robert Macomber

Peter Wake has an exciting life. As an American Naval Intelligence Officer, he finds himself operating in the shadowy world of espionage during some of the greatest events in American history. Time and travel are of no consequence to him, because he is the central character in Robert Macomber’s novels, centered around events that changed not only American history, but also the world at large.

Macomber’s most recent novel, Honoring the Enemy, has been eagerly awaited by his fans, who call themselves Wakians. Macomber said his readers are extremely enthusiastic, often assisting him with research and frequently contacting him about their travels to locations in his books. He’s written 14 about Wake and his adventures and exploits; the last eight have been written in the style of Wake’s memoirs. And as far as memoirs go, Honoring the Enemy sounds like a pretty hot read.

“It’s the story of a great love affair, a spy story, a war story…” said Macomber as we were chatting about his anthology and why this most recent book is his favorite so far. “This one was really, really personal to me.”

Normally, Macomber works in 4-5 books per year, and each project takes a few years to complete; Honoring the Enemy took nearly a decade. Part of this was due to the extensive research that went into the project, which is set in Cuba and tells the story of how America became a continental power after the Spanish American war in the late 1800s. Macomber said he wanted to tell the story of the age-old bond between Americans and Cubans and introduce readers to important figures in American history in a more personal way. Take Teddy Roosevelt, for example: he served heroically in the Spanish American War, which catapulted him into the political spotlight and later, into the White House. These types of historical origin stories are exactly what Macomber likes to focus on, explaining the reasons for why certain events took place the way they did.

Perhaps what makes Macomber’s novels so special is his dedication to research. He employs two types: academic first, then “eyeball recon,” or immersive trips in order to experience details firsthand to better bring them to life for his readers. It’s not always an easy process, though. His eyeball recon for an earlier novel set in Vietnam presented significant challenges, as have his novels set in Cuba. At first, the Cuban government was very wary of him, and he said he underwent a fair amount of harassment. And then his readers came to his rescue in an interesting way.

“Many of my readers are Freemasons,” he said. “So they reached out and connected me with the Freemasons in Cuba, two of whom received the first two published copies of the book in the world. Sharing that with them was incredibly special.”

Macomber’s enthusiasm is contagious – whether he’s talking about history, Peter Wake, his readers or independent bookstores, his passion radiates through. And to say he’s excited about his second visit to the Midtown Reader is an understatement.

“Most authors love independent bookstores; we have a better time at their events and our readers have a far better time,” he said. “It’s a party for people who already love books, at a place run by true bibliophiles who know and love books. I can’t wait.”

This article was first published by Midtown Reader.