It’s Meet the Author Monday! Each week we meet a new author and get to know a little about them, their writing process, publishing experience, and tips for other writers. Today we’re talking to Michael Rands, author of The Chapel St. Perilous.
About Michael Rands:
Michael Rands is the author of the satirical, dark comedy, Praise Routine Number Four, co-author of the economic satire The Yamaguchi dManuscripts, and Kamikaze Economics (a story of modern Japan). He’s co-author of the humorous dictionary Stay Away from Mthatha. He co-created the audio drama The Crystal Set, and is one of the hosts on the podcast Detours Ahead. In South Africa he worked in television as a writer, director and producer. He taught English in Japan. He holds an MFA from Louisiana State University, and currently teaches English and Creative Writing at the college level. He lives with his wife and toddler in Alabama, not too far from a bayou. The Chapel St. Perilous is his second published novel.
About The Chapel St. Perilous:
Believing the universe is sending him secret signs, Marcel Swart puts his meagre savings into a high-leverage investment. Overnight, Marcel becomes a millionaire, but these winnings come at a great cost—such as the demon that seems to be following him, leaving carnage in its wake.
In a quest to set himself right with the universe, Marcel travels cross-country, finding himself in a small town in Alabama, rife with political tension surrounding a mysterious cult and a sheriff’s election that may very well decide the fate of the country. Marcel struggles to uncover the secrets of the cult, the town, and the world itself—all while facing criminal charges for a murder he can’t remember committing.
Author Interview with Michael Rands:
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- What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
The best literary pilgrimage I’ve been on was also one of the first (and best) writing residencies I attended. I was selected as the winter writer in residence at the Kerouac Project in Orlando Florida. This was back in 2012/2013. It was the first time I’d ever been to the United States. I spent a week or so in New York, then went to Connecticut for another residency, and then rode the train down to central Florida. Back in the 1950s, Jack Kerouac was living in what was then a very remote part of the state when “On the Road”, the book that would make him famous, was accepted and published. The house he lived in has since been converted into a writer’s residency. Each resident gets full use of the house for three months, and writes (if they so choose) in the room where Kerouac wrote “The Dharma Bums”. It was a wonderful time for me. I had bottomless writing energy and stamina. I could write for six to eight hours in a row, day after day, just churning out page after page. There’s a great community of writers and readers centered around the Kerouac Project and they made me feel very much at home. Also, as this house is now on the National Registry of Historic Places, lots of literary pilgrims show up at the house. I’d been told I could let them in at my own discretion. So, I would sometimes just let in a group of strangers, show them around and regale them with stories of Kerouac’s life in the house. So, I was a literary pilgrim, and also a kind of literary monk, tending to the place of pilgrimage.
- What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
The book I’ve just finished writing, The Chapel St. Perilous, is a spin-off of a book that I wrote but didn’t publish. That book, called 1938, was the manuscript I submitted to receive my MFA. I did more formal research for that book than I’ve ever done for another. I spent my summer break back in South Africa (my homeland) and worked all day in historical archives at the Universities of Cape Town and Stellenbosch. I interviewed historians, dug up rare archival footage, pored over old documents. It was an amazing experience for me. Unfortunately, I think that the over-abundance of facts actually made it more difficult for me to write the novel, and so, although I completed it, I was never fully happy with it, and put it to rest. However, the main character, Marcel, in The Chapel St. Perilous, is the grandson of the main character from my unpublished novel, 1938. Because I knew so much about my main character’s family history, he had an amazing depth and sense of real-ness for me. I feel like I know so much about him, and why he is the way he is. The novel (The Chapel St. Perilous) is in part about excavating family history, and so, all the research I did for my unpublished work, ended up helping me. As for direct research for this new novel, I did it on the go, researching whatever I needed to whenever I’d find myself running up against my own ignorance. Which is, frankly, most of the time.
- Do you view writing as a kind of spiritual practice?
Absolutely, yes. I often think writing is much like being a monk or serious spiritual seeker. You have to center your life around a practice that must be intrinsically fulfilling, even though it is extremely difficult and requires great sacrifice. You have no idea if anyone will ever read your books at all, and if they do, how they will respond. For this reason, you must keep writing for the sake of writing. For me, writing fiction is about asking the most difficult questions about life and trying to answer them, while knowing all the while that you will only be able to partially succeed, if that. This, to me, is the same as the religious or spiritual impulse.
- What period of your life do you find you write about most often? (child, teenager, young adult)
Up to this point, I’ve found myself consistently writing about young adulthood—early to mid twenties. I was in my early twenties when I wrote my first published novel, and although I’m quite a bit older now, I’ve still been drawn to characters that age. At this point in life, I’m much more settled, and my life is less chaotic than it was in my early twenties. I guess I have been drawn back to that time because there’s something raw and wild about it. That said, I have also written from the perspective of much older characters, which I found challenging, but very fulfilling. It’s difficult to write about an age that you’ve never been, and it’s also difficult to write about an age you once were, but aren’t anymore. However, writing about an age that you are not, does have the advantage of putting some daylight between you and your central character.
- What was your hardest scene to write?
My father passed away suddenly ten years ago. I was working on a novel at the time, and there was a character kind of sort of based on him. So, tragically, I decided that this character would have to die. It was rather awful, but I didn’t know how else to write the book. Since then, my writing has often dealt with the themes of death and loss, although these are not the primary focus of my work. I do remember that in the early days, after he’d passed away, and people would ask me about what happened, my throat would close up as I’d try to explain. Then, after telling the story many times, and writing about it (even in fictionalized form) I found myself able to talk about it more easily. It was part of the healing process for me, I believe.
- How do you handle writer’s block?
I don’t ever suffer from writer’s block. What I get is—if I may be a little crude—more like writer’s diarrhea. I have too many ideas and they all want my attention. Because of this, I’ve started and abandoned many projects. It usually takes me quite a while (at least a few months of solid work) to know if a project is for real. At some point, I realize, OK, this is it, for sure, I’m going to see it through all the way to the end, no matter what. Even if I die, I’ll come back and finish it. But until that moment, I don’t always know. So, recently I’ve been trying to figure out if there’s a better way for me to know in advance what I should really write about, and what I should ignore. A very close friend of mine recommended a book to me about Jungian dream analysis. Over the summer break I started analyzing my dreams every night. I felt like the unconscious was communicating with me, telling me what it wanted me to do. Writing is a process where you get in touch with the unconscious, but my hope is that by doing some of that work beforehand, and with direct intention, I may be able to avoid some of the wasted time, avoid taking on projects that go nowhere. But, this is something I’ve not tried before nor seen to completion yet. So, we will see. Even before this, I’ve always been fascinated by dreams and taken them quite seriously.
- Where can readers purchase your books?
The easiest place to buy my new book (or past books) is through Amazon. Here’s a link to the latest one, The Chapel St. Perilous.
- If your book was to be made into a movie, who are the celebrities that would star in it?
For the leading female character, Antoinette Dubois, I’d want Jane Levy from Zoes Extraordinary Playlist. For the male lead (the protagonist) I have a very unusual pick. His name is John Paul Jones and he appeared as a contestant on The Bachelorette. I read a rumor that he was trying to make it as an actor, so if you read this John Paul, I have your first big role lined up for you.
- Have you ever been on any sports teams? If so, what sport?
Sports were a big part of my life growing up in South Africa. I was a competitive short and mid-distance runner when I was young. I especially loved the 400m race. I still love to run fast, and I remember this feeling of running the 400m race: just at the moment when you feel like your body is saying… no, stop… that’s the key to kick even harder and run with all your might for the last part of the race. It’s the kind of metaphor that holds true for some (though by no means all) aspects of life. South Africa is pretty fanatical about rugby. I played that competitively when I was a teenager, up to age 18. When I was in my early teens, I played in the “A team”, but the best year of rugby was my final year of school, when I played in the “B team.” Our team was made up of players who were individually not as impressive as the players in the top team. The funny thing was, we’d play practice games against them often, and we’d always beat them. We just had this great spirit, and we all worked together so well. When I lived in Japan I played in a touch rugby team. That was amazing. I got to experience the fun parts of rugby without all the broken teeth, torn ligaments, and concussions. Our team was made up of Japanese players, as well as South Africans, Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians and Americans. We were pretty good and were competitive in the national touch champions league. We also had a wonderful team spirit, and I made amazing friends there.
- What’s your favorite spot to visit in your own country? And what makes it so special to you?
Although I grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, I feel like my spiritual hometown is the city of Cape Town, where I went to university, and where my mother is now retired. I’d not been back there for some 5 years, but this summer (winter over there) I got to go back. It was the first time my wife got to see the country, and we took our little toddler. Cape Town is definitely one of (if not the single most) beautiful city in the world. There’s a beach there called Boulders Beach where people go to see the penguins. You have to pay to enter, and it’s often quite busy. Right next to it, is a quiet little beach that not as many people know about, and in the winter time it’s basically pretty empty. I’ve always loved this beach, and this past winter I truly got to appreciate it to its fullest. In part inspired by the Oscar winning documentary My Octopus Teacher, I decided I would try skin diving in the cold Cape Town water. At least once a week, sometimes more, I’d wade off from this incredible beach into the freezing water. For the first few minutes it feels like you’re going to die. And then… boom, I guess endorphins kick in and you get this intense natural high. For about twenty minutes or so, I could swim out far into the ocean, and snorkel down under water, pulling on the magical kelp that sways about below the ocean surface. I’d see fish and starfish, and even a few little sharks. Then I’d pop up, and the view is just unbelievable. The bluest ocean, incredible boulders, mountains in the distance, penguins hopping off the rocks. I would float for a little while, sometimes sit on a rock in the ocean, like a sea nymph, look up at the sky, then go back to diving. It was truly one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life. If someone had tapped me on the shoulder and said, hey, you died and you’re in Heaven. I would have said, ah yes, I thought so.