#MABLE: Author Interview with Walt Pilcher.

All of you are invited to join in the fun of the Massive Autumn Book Launch Event (#MABLE) organised by my publisher, Fantastic Books Publishing. All the books in the event are hugely discounted, so a great opportunity to try some new and exciting fiction. It began on 17th September and runs to 31st October. And you can sign up to join in the fun here.

I’m posting interviews with the authors here during the event. This one is with Walt Pilcher:

Walt Pilcher has been a writer all his life. His parody radio ads for Mother Murphy’s Moldy Meatballs at age 11 foreshadowed a career in consumer products marketing during which he became CEO of several companies including L’eggs®, the pantyhose in the plastic eggs. Walt authored an award-winning
book on leadership (The Five-fold Effect), a collection of witty short stories, poems and songs (On Shallowed Ground) and three comedy novels (Everybody Shrugged, The Accidental Spurrt®, and Killing O’Carolan). Spurrt and O’Carolan are books 1 and 2 in his hilarious Mark Fairley Mystery series. He holds a BA from Wesleyan University and an MBA from Stanford University and lives in High Point, North Carolina, with his wife, Carol, an artist.

Interview questions:

1.         Did some specific event trigger the creation of The Accidental Spurrt®, a Mark Fairley Mystery or, alternatively, was this a project you’d been considering for some time?

The premise for the Mark Fairley series, and this the first book in it, did come from personal experience. Mark is fired from his white-collar position when his company “downsizes.” He falls into something temporary to bring in money while he looks for another real job. In my business career I was fired three times (never my fault of course, and two were downsizings).

The first time, I was a mid-level executive in a large apparel company that downsized, like Mark’s company did. While searching for my next job, I wondered if there might be a story I could work up about the experience. I imagined myself, or my story’s protagonist, standing in line at the unemployment office, sending out dozens of résumés, doing some sort of temp work to bring in money when the severance runs out, and worrying a lot.

Almost every fired executive’s daydream is to become a consultant. It certainly was mine. No more the eight-to-five grind day after day and many evenings and weekends. Own your own company with your own name on the door. No more boss, only “clients” (classier). Flexible hours. Pick and choose which engagements to take and which to turn down. Travel. Possibly write a book. Make barrels of money and enjoy life on your own terms. Well, maybe. If you’re lucky and very good at what you do. Still, no harm in fantasizing about it. So, I did, and the downsized Mark Fairley was born.

But who wants to read a story about a boring consultant, Sherlock Holmes aside? Ah, but wait: Holmes is a “consulting detective,” with Scotland Yard as his sometime client. His stories are told by his otherwise clueless friend, Dr. John Watson, who participates in them as well. Detective stories are far more interesting, and marketable, than wannabe consultant stories. Why not put Mark into undercover amateur consulting detective situations? A fish out of water-a reluctant hero thrust out of his ordinary world (see The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler). And give him a partner-not a Watson or a comic relief sidekick but a far from clueless wife named Emily. And let him work with the police.

What sorts of situations? They say, “Write what you know” (whoever “they” are). I’ve been a mid- and senior-level executive. I’ve been fired (I did eventually get hired back by the company that downsized me.). I’ve worked as an employee or consultant for consumer products companies in the US, Europe,
and several Pacific Rim countries including companies with plants in small Southern towns like the Spurrville of the novel. I’ve been in the Army. I’ve been in academia as a university trustee. I’ve travelled the US and the world for pleasure as well as business, and I’ve lived in Japan. I’ve raised a family with my far from clueless wife, Carol, an artist. I’ve been in the hospital as a heart attack patient. I’ve written stories, music, and poetry and invested time in the arts community in Greensboro, North Carolina, where
I lived for 30 years until recently and where both Mark Fairley mysteries largely take place. I’ve never worked with the police (although I once rode with a patrol officer for four hours as part of a community relations program), but I’ve read many detective and lawyer novels. I’m active in church and three faith-based non-profits. And I don’t like fuzzy coffee (read the book).

All those experiences are rife with fodder for my stories and Mark’s adventures in both The Accidental Spurrt® and number two in the series, Killing O’Carolan, launching in October.

That’s stuff I know and can write about, but I also say to “them,” “What you don’t know, you can research; you can find almost anything online.” But be careful: As Abraham Lincoln famously said, “You can’t believe everything you read on the Internet.”

Is my writing autobiographical? I say no, even though Mark Fairley was at least partially inspired by events in my life. Many of my characters are inspired by real people I know or know of, but I’m not writing their
biographies. So, while Mark’s character was inspired by me and there are resemblances and shared experiences, his life story is not my life story. Mark is Mark. He isn’t me.

1.a.       What’s with the ® (or “circle R”) symbol after the word Spurrt® in the book’s title?

It means that Spurrt®, the energy drink that figures importantly in the story, is a trademark registered by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Fictitiously, of course, as there is no such product, at least not yet. When the book is made into a movie that breaks box office and streaming records, some enterprising beverage company will buy the rights to the name, and I will become rich. Unless I sell out for only a dollar in order to benefit mankind.

My use of the “circle R” symbol is a subtle dig at corporate lawyers who are picky and territorial about how their companies’ trademarks are displayed, sometimes going beyond common sense. So subtle no one would get it but me, I admit, but that’s part of the fun for me. But I do acknowledge and appreciate the importance of intellectual property protection.

In my collection of short stories and poems, On Shallowed Ground, I also use the ® in the story “Dr. Barker’s Scientific Metamorphical Prostate Health Formula®.” It is a wonderful, entertaining story, but I doubt anybody will make it into a movie. Nevertheless, I’m open to it. Contact me.

2.         Most works of fiction have themes either at their heart or subtly roving beneath the surface for the more analytical reader; what were your themes here, and why do they matter to you?

If by themes you mean a political or moral viewpoint or an expression of concern about certain issues confronting us as a society, etc., the answer is no. Also, I’m not sure I agree that most works of fiction have these. Maybe they do and I’m just oblivious. I do know that points of view and philosophies can be voiced by characters or demonstrated by events without necessarily being full-blown underlying themes, and those views are not always necessarily those of the author.

Anyhow, I will say that while my work is not thematic or specifically political, I do have a sort of biblical world view and am conservative in my outlook, and this probably comes through. However, I have no problem making fun of that worldview, or of any other, for that matter, especially if taken to extremes. I’m trying to entertain, not make a thematic statement or comment. Sure, there are things we need to be serious about and work hard to get right. I think of MASH with its underlying anti-war theme but where the characters’ irreverent, devil-may-care attitudes and behaviour vanished when it came time to treat the wounded. If I do have a theme, it’s to encourage readers to live by what I call the 11th Commandment (as carved on the tablet Moses holds on the cover of On Shallowed Ground), which is “Thou shalt not take thyself too seriously.”

3.         Is The Accidental Spurrt® your first created book or do you have others both published and/or awaiting publication?

It is, in fact, the fourth. The first, The Five-fold Effect, is a non-fiction book on leadership from a biblical perspective (see Q. 5, below, for more about it). It was self-published.

The others, including Spurrt, are:

– On Shallowed Ground, including Dr. Barker’s Scientific Metamorphical Prostate Health Formula® and other Stories, Poems, Comedy and Dark Matter from the Center of the Universe

– Everybody Shrugged (the military and academia at comical cross purposes in an atmosphere of government-sponsored environmentalism gone crazy)

– The Accidental Spurrt®, a Mark Fairley Mystery (“Downsized” out of his white-collar job, Mark reluctantly plays undercover detective to get to the bottom of a suspicious death and some hilariously strange goings-on at a troubled energy drink company in a small town in North Carolina)

And coming in October 2022:

– Killing O’Carolan, a Mark Fairley Mystery (Someone is poisoning poets in Greensboro and there seems to be no rhyme or reason to it. Mark goes undercover in the arts community to learn whose muse has run amok and restore poetic justice to the city.)

All four are from Fantastic Books Publishing

4.         When did you start writing and what prompted you to choose words as your creative medium?

My parents instilled in me a love of reading starting at about age 4 (The Little Engine that Could by Watty Piper, the Authors card game, and other encouraging stimuli). I wrote my first short story at age 8, a detective story called “The Case of the Muddy Shoes.” Only 59 words, but it got me started. I’ve always been seriously facile with words. My dad was an electrical engineer and naturally I wanted to follow in his footsteps, but I gave it up when I discovered I had but little aptitude for math. So, wordsit was and has been. What irony that my most recent novels are detective stories, eh?

5.         To what extent does genre guide your treatment of story/subject?

Genre is a bugaboo. And genre definitions keep changing and subdividing. Genre is a perhaps necessary convenience created by publishers, and I have no problem with it, although it did bite me once (see below). If I have an idea of something I want to write, I don’t think much about what genre it will be in. That consideration comes into play when deciding what markets to submit it to. In the case of Fantastic Books Publishing, I know their bent is science-fiction, but they also have titles outside of that, and they are broadening their offerings as we speak (or write). Some writers will intentionally write with a particular market in mind, and that is okay. Probably smart. But I’ve not done that. The first short story of mine that
FBP published was sci-fi, submitted because they were looking to publish a sci-fi anthology, but I didn’t originally write it with FBP in mind. It was for a writing class I was taking. There are a couple of sci-fi stories in the first full length book of mine they published (On Shallowed Ground), but that’s all, and the three novels are not sci-fi. In fact, I don’t know what genre they are. Crime? Detective? Humour?

How did genre bite me? My first book was a non-fiction work on leadership from a biblical perspective. It’s titled The Five-fold Effect: Unlocking Power Leadership for Amazing Results in Your Organization and is based on the five-fold ministry described in Ephesians 4:11-16. It has some great endorsements so I thought it would be easy to find a publisher. I pitched it to well-known traditional Christian publishers and a couple of them liked it. However, the problem was, as one of them told me, “We don’t know how to
classify it.” They only knew how to publish and market material they could find a pigeonhole for!  After a wasted year of frustration, I self-published with WestBow Press, a division of Thomas Nelson.

6.         How do you feel about ‘experimental’ literature? Have you ever employed an approach that might be seen as experimental?

As far as I’m concerned, almost everything I write is experimental literature! Just kidding. I know that is a thing, but I confess I never heard of it until you asked. So, I looked it up. No, I’m not an intentional
experimental writer, but I do break the rules and try new things whenever I think it will add to the story or the entertainment value of what I’m writing.

7.         Do you plot, or are you a ‘pantster’ writing without a definite plan, and why do you use this method of construction?

If I use an outline for a novel or story, it will be a rough one, and much of it will be in my head. If that makes me a “pantster,” so be it. But it probably doesn’t because a pantster, as I understand it, dives in without much pre-planning, and I don’t do that. I certainly have no criticism of those who do; it’s a remarkable talent that is to be applauded.

I began my first novel, Everybody Shrugged, some 40 years ago, knowing little about how to structure such a thing. I had a premise and a very rough plot in mind, but that was about all besides a burning desire to “write a book.” My first rookie mistake was having two protagonists of equal importance, so readers didn’t know who to root for. Fortunately, both characters (along with all the others) are completely nuts, so they can be interesting and accepted, liked or disliked, in equal measure without
leaving the reader adrift. I cobbled the thing together and it sat for many years until I retired and had time to work on creative writing projects in earnest. I dusted it off and did a complete rewrite using the experience and writing skill I had developed in the meantime. In effect, then, that first draft became the outline for the finished product.

For The Accidental Spurrt®, I did create an extensive written outline, and I wrote short backstories or profiles for each major character. However, when I got to the actual writing, things changed. The narrative tumbled out as I wrote, and better ideas appeared. My dialog almost writes itself, and my characters often take the story in a direction I hadn’t planned. That’s fun! So, for Killing O’Carolan, the second in the series, I had a story line in my head, I already had Mark Fairley’s backstory established from The Accidental Spurrt®, and I made a few written notes as scattered steppingstones, but there was no outline, per se. Each day it was “Which scene am I going to write today?” And I would write it. Not necessarily in the order it would appear in the book. Building blocks. Sometimes today’s block triggers going back and revising a previous one. But eventually the puzzle comes together.

8.         What, if any, input did you have in the design of the book cover, and is such collaboration important to you?

After accepting my manuscripts, FBP has always asked me to provide any cover ideas I might have. And I do have them. For me, it is important to have input into the cover design. It is for me an extension of the creative process of writing the book. Plus, I have a lot of fun with it. I am not blessed with skill as an artist, per se, but I do have an eye for design-layout, composition, how the elements can relate to each other, etc., having been responsible to help develop advertising for much of my business career. My wife, who is a painter, values my advice when she is working on a piece (just as I value hers on my written drafts; though she doesn’t like to write, she is fundamentally good at it and knows good writing from bad).

I submitted rough mock-up covers using Word Art and photos and clip art from the Internet. FBP used my ideas for three of the four books of mine they’ve published. That is, their cover designer took my basic ideas and, with brilliant modifications, produced wonderful covers. The only one we differed on was The Accidental Spurrt®, but in the end I had to admit their design was far superior to what I suggested.

9.         English is a temperamental language; how important is it for an author to understand its rules?

It is very important. That doesn’t mean you have to be able to diagram sentences or define a dangling participle, or even a non-dangling one. I can’t. On the other hand, a familiarity with The Elements of Style by Strunk and White is a must. Also, believe it or not, taking Latin in high school was a major contributor to my facility with English. Writing well takes practice. It also needs critique by objective “first readers.” These do not have to be professionals, just people who write well and recognize mistakes. Most famous painters had teachers and mastered the “rules” and conventions of the craft long before they ventured out with their own unique styles to convey whatever they were trying to say with their art. It’s the same with writing. Know the rules first; then break them to good effect when necessary.

10.       Bearing in mind the wide choice of self-publishing platforms now available, what made you choose Fantastic Books Publishing as your route to the reading public?

In a way, FBP chose me. I had written a short science-fiction story called “The Meeting at the Center of the Universe” for a writing class I was taking. FBP posted a call for submissions to their sci-fi anthology, Fusion, which I saw in the weekly newsletter of the North Carolina Writers’ Network. I polished the story and sent it in. Lo and behold, it was accepted! That began a relationship with Dan Grubb, the CEO/owner of FBP and led to his subsequent acceptance and publication of my first fiction book, On Shallowed Ground, including Dr. Barker’s Scientific Metamorphical Prostate Health Formula® and other Stories, Poems, Comedy and Dark Matter from the Center of the Universe. The title tells it all, and yes it does include the Dr. Barker story along with other material I’d written over the previous 50 years (yes, 50 years!), updated to turn-of-the-21st Century language.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to be published and grateful that Dan keeps taking chances with me to the tune of two novels after On Shallowed Ground and a third on the way this fall.   

11.       What prompted you to write a novel (Killing O’Carolan) featuring such an arcane subject as the music of Turlough O’Carolan? Most people have never heard of him.

Unlike people who pick up a guitar in their teens or younger, practice very hard, maybe go to music school, and end up being Eric Clapton or Mark Knopfler, I found myself taking up music relatively late in life. Call it a bucket list item if you must, but it wasn’t something I had to do before dying, just something I always wanted to do but felt I had no time for (like writing, for many).

After I wrote a few tunes, a mutual friend introduced me to a semi-retired electronics engineer named Vance Archer III who hosts a weekly music circle in his home in Greensboro and from it had formed a band called Bishop’s Bridge. (Vance has a little dog named Bishop, but I never learned where the
“Bridge” came from. There are Bishop’s Bridges in London, Norwich, Barcelona, and Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria, and probably other places but none of them of particular interest to Vance as far as I know). Anyway, the band plays mostly acoustic string instruments including guitar, mandolin, fiddle, cello, bass, autoharp, banjo, and hammer dulcimer, plus bodhrán, and they favor traditional and modern American folk and a lot of traditional Celtic music, with the occasional rock ‘n roll number tossed in. As well as being a talented musician, Vance is a generous man, and he lent me one of his guitars while I was shopping for my own, and he let me play in his band’s gigs even though at first I could only find one chord I knew and wait until it came around in the music at which time I would strum it with gusto.

Through Bishop’s Bridge I learned about Turlough O’Carolan and found that, as much as I love and respect ancient and traditional Irish music, it begs to be parodied. Any field where the word “planxty” is used frequently simply cannot be taken too seriously.

12.       What is the origin of The Christmas O’Carolan Songbook, Volume 1 as featured in Killing O’Carolan?

Some readers are surprised to think I would write a bunch of songs and music, several pages of script, and a whole backstory for a musical comedy solely for the purpose of fleshing out a mystery novel. I didn’t, but I do not tell them different. But I’ll tell you.

After playing with Bishop’s Bridge, the band, and hitting on the idea of satirizing the life and times of Turlough O’Carolan through his fictitious son Christmas O’Carolan, I wrote the music, the backstory or “treatment,” and the partial stage play script and submitted them to the business manager of our local semi-professional community theater. The theater is known for doing shows written and produced by its own creative director, and so I thought if he became interested in this project, he could finish the script
to his own liking, find real musicians to arrange and perform the music, and mount a smashing production. Alas, it was not to be. The first reaction to my offering was, “Well, you know, we don’t really do Christmas stuff here.” Which meant he obviously hadn’t read my material and my objections would be useless. I sat on it a couple of years and then made another run at the theater, this time straight to the creative director, avoiding the middleman. And this time no response at all.

So, what to do with all the fine Christmas O’Carolan work I had invested so much effort on, and how could I not let this wonderful material remain hidden from a deserving public? I know, I said to myself, I’ll write a Mark Fairley mystery that takes him under cover in the arts community. With that, it was easy to weave the O’Carolan material into the plot with appropriate alterations. I think it works well.

My review of The Accidental Spurrt
Reviews on Goodreads

Reviews on Amazon

Melodie’s Musings – A view from Melodie Trudeaux

My review of Killing O’Carolan

Reviews on Goodreads
Amazon Reviews

Penny’s Ponderings – A view from Penny Grubb

Melodie’s Musings – A view from Melodie Trudeaux

6 thoughts on “#MABLE: Author Interview with Walt Pilcher.

  1. waltpilcher1

    Thanks for the interview, Stuart. Excellent questions! I know I always enjoy hearing about what other authors think, how they work, what goes on behind the scenes, etc., and so it was a pleasure to contribute my thoughts as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. mph26

    This interview was a revelation. I learned a great deal about Walt’s life and working practices and how they’ve influenced his writing, further enhancing the pleasure that his novels have given me.

    Liked by 1 person

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