Interview with Michael Campbell

What motivated you to become an indie author?
I knew I wanted to write fiction--for the wrong reasons--when I read a terrible piece of erotica a friend insisted I check out because three of the characters shared names with people in our circle. I knew I could do better. Blowing off my real work, I spent 30 hours over the course of a weekend writing a story with the same characters, same setting, but a different plot. It was erotica without explicit sex. I was still too scared. I brought it back to her and she claimed to like it better. I don't dwell on that stuff, whether she did or not, because it doesn't matter. I enjoyed the experience, and that wasn't what I wanted to write, anyway. I'm not knocking it! A good Penthouse Forum story, as cliché and formula as it is, works fine for me. Until recently, I wasn't ashamed to admit that I liked that stuff even if I hadn't seen it in almost twenty years. The research I did for TFT, however, opened my eyes. Porn kills, whether I enjoy it or not. I never doubted the sweat part. But the tears? The blood? Yes, definitely, and yes, depending on your definition.
What writing that story proved to me was that I could get lost in the act of putting words on a page, that writing could be even more fun than reading. It didn't feel like work. We figured that no one would take the time to write this stuff without compensation. Dollar signs danced in my dreams...
Until I did an internet search for "erotic fiction free" and was blown away by the ever increasing quantity of mixed-quality writing. OK, there wasn't money in this and I already had too much to do. I started mulling it over--which for me, is the big first step--but stayed exclusively in non-fiction, worrying about getting journal articles published. Occasionally, I'd reward myself with a frenzied weekend of writing for fun when the mood struck. My next jobs were less writing intensive, the kids became more peer-focused, and the words "free time" crept back into my vocabulary.
Then 50 Shades happened. [Note: I didn't actually read 3/4 of Book 1 until The Family Trust was in final editing, Thanksgiving 2015. Thank goodness I did, because I was about to accidentally rip off quite a few ideas from it.] Another friend and I were discussing the phenomenon in 2014, and she pointed out to me that, among many things, the book and, worse, the rumored impending movie--because that's what men were going to know--wasn't good for women. It made them less safe, even if they were, by far, the majority of readers.
What's the story behind your latest book?
[Warning: There are Season 1 spoilers in this and the next few questions.]
We wondered if people would be as accepting if the tables were turned, and tweaked. Call it The Anti-50 Shades: What if a powerless young man became the property of an older female couple? Rather than try to pretend that there was anything right about this total control and domination (without consent), I decided to be clear that there wasn't. I couldn't help but make the characters likable, though, even in their guilt. I tried to portray basically good people struggling with the choices they had made. Ginger and Jax eventually realize the error of their ways and come clean to Tom, ask his forgiveness, and offer to move forward as equals. It raises a great question: Could something that started out explicitly wrong become beautiful and true?
I think that the world would be a better place if men weren't running the show. I couldn't believe that two powerful women would continue to victimize someone weaker than them. Not the type of women I wanted to write, anyway. Their greater willingness (I'm being a generalizing sexist here) to follow the more nurturing impulses of our human nature wouldn't permit it. As long as the man surrendered to their strength and wisdom, he'd be a better person because of it. They all might actually come to love each other. I believe real love is possible in the TFT world. It wasn't in what I read of 50 Shades.
If that 115M-seller made women less safe (my belief), and I wrote for men, could my books undo some of that damage?
How do you write a steamy book about master/servant "relationships" and pseudo-BDSM themes and make anyone safer?
I'm not claiming that I succeeded! I've gotten quite a bit of feedback at this point. I've been praised and knocked for many things, but no one has said, "preachy" or "educational". What that tells me is that I didn't overdo it.
The plan was to use charismatic characters and keep readers engaged with sex, laughs, and thrills long enough to sneak some moral messages in there.
Tom is average, the "any man". He's decent, occasionally hapless, and flawed if charming. There are only a few special things about him. You might be surprised that I think the most important quality for the story is that he is humble; he surrenders well. Ginger, on the other hand, is a mess of clichés that I felt would appeal to the target audience: sexually active men. She is my definition of hot, but also has the moral authority to be overtly didactic at points, teaching important lessons that guys aren't getting in pop culture, such as:
Even decent men can victimize women without knowing it.
Sometimes, saying "no" can be (or feel) more dangerous than letting something bad happen.
Anyone can be raped. And, anyone can honestly believe it's, at least partially, her or his fault, despite all logic and justice.
Watching the free porn men now take for granted is actually supporting a meat-grinding industry and contributing in/directly to suffering and exploitation.
Books like 50 Shades perpetuate the myth that men might need to know when "no doesn't really mean no" while what they should be worried about is the situations in which "yes doesn't really mean yes".
Did I miss the mark? Absolutely! I'm a first-time author trying to ride too high a horse. I gave readers 100 free pages to say, "Are you f-ing kidding me?" Those that are willing to pay to go beyond that will hopefully say, "Hey! There is method to this madness. And I don't feel bad for liking it."
My goal from the beginning was to write most of the women as strong and confident. I like to think of myself as a feminist. My editor, however, pointed out the myriad ways that my sexism showed. For example, there are three points in the book in which a man comes to a woman or girl's rescue. I couldn't change them without messing up the story, so I chose to draw the readers' attention to two of them. It's hard to get beyond a lifetime of bad habits and ignorance. But you have to try, a point Ginger makes more than once. And anyway, perfect isn't only the enemy of done, it's the enemy of read, too.
I was a little bolder messing around with gender roles and stereotypes. Tough Tom is practically wearing an apron and fretting about keeping the women who own him (and he loves) well fed. He's the happy homemaker, and is subordinated in every way throughout half of the story. When Ginger is breaking him in, she does little things that make him feel effeminate (which, to Tom, is terrifying). She'll wear heels so that he has to stand on his toes to kiss her. When they do, she holds his hands behind him, resting them on the small of his back. If you're a man, picture how that would feel. She challenges him to a fight and whoops him in front of a crowd. She can do whatever she wants to him, and does. He is powerless to change anything. In my opinion, understanding what it's like to always be physically vulnerable would help improve men's behavior. And, at the same time, also in my opinion, there's something hot about ceding total control to someone else. The best "poor" Tom can do is comfort himself by remembering that he is fooling around with one of the sexiest women in the world, and she alone knows his "shame".
Do you have any regrets after your first publication?
The Family Trust is too long. Even if the reviews are great (currently a 5:1 ratio of love to hate) and the price is $0, readers will hesitate to make such a commitment to a first time author.
The one that has caused me the most anxiety is that I put all of the most controversial and uncomfortable scenes in the first episode. On the one hand, as I said, this gives readers a chance to bail out before investing too much time or any money. On the other, it ensures that some people will be turned off and quit before getting to any of the moral messages. Some will think I put Ginger's two origin stories in for shock value alone.
Starting my writing career with an NC-17 story was a mistake, even if that's the story I wanted to tell. Besides limiting its market potential, having to keep my connection to TFT a secret from some members of my extended family and many colleagues doesn't do anything to help me break out of obscurity or take pride in what is, really, a significant achievement.
It is also hard to classify. It's definitely not erotica and people looking for that have been disappointed. By pages, only 7% of the book is explicit sex. But most of the themes are adult. There's a love story or two in there, but it's not a romance. The best I can come up with is that it's an intellectual thriller with a few kinks in it. Making that "Anti-50 Shades" hook plausible required a complicated story with smart characters. It builds to a few exciting moments. I think it will make readers consider several interesting questions and experience varying heart rates. But as thrillers go, it's not a non-stop action ride. Being neither fish nor fowl makes it harder to find the people who will love it.

Even with all those points, I love The Family Trust. As is, and for some of the reasons I just listed as regrets. Most of the "excess" length comes in the form of bonus sex scenes (why not?) or dialogue that doesn't move the story forward as much as it invites the reader to think about an issue from a different perspective. Or teaches a point. I'm a psychologist and always curious about people's behavior and motivations. I worked hard to keep characters consistent and create moments in which you have no more than a sneaking suspicion that someone is lying and try to figure out why.
I do not regret reaching a certain point and saying, "I'm publishing this." For me, getting the first one done and out there was the most important thing. I started writing The Family Trust two years ago. Some parts were rewritten five or six times. I could continue making improvements--from big structural changes to word choices--for the rest of my life. Every time I go back in to remind myself who said what, when, I see something that I want to fix, even after a professional editor and several beta readers gave it their seal of approval. (It's these post-editing "revisions" that probably account for the majority of typos.) I've always learned best the hard way, and that's what I'll do here. This one's pretty cool, but the next book will be better.
What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
When I was a kid, I could get lost in Lego Land for 8-hour stretches, forgetting to eat. It was the same when I had the time and space to disappear into a wood shop making guitars as an adult. Now, on the rare occasion that I get a kid-free stretch that long, I'll have a handful of almonds or peanuts and go 12 hours in front of my laptop, surprised when I look up and realize it's dark out.
I'm solitary by nature but never lonely if I'm writing or thinking about my pals Ginger, Tom, and Kate. I know I'm not the only author who feels that way, but admitting that I have a relationship with these fictional people is embarrassing.
What inspires you to get out of bed each day?
A wet nose with a full bladder is the alarm clock. Then, hungry kids who take for granted that divorced mommy and daddy can laugh with each other over the breakfast table. Big picture? The chip on my shoulder that comes from hearing that I wasn't living up to my potential for the first half of my life. Then there's the countless people who have sacrificed to make me who I am, and I can't let them down. I don't believe in luck when it comes to other people, generally, but it's given me countless advantages.
Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
I remember the first one I liked. I had borrowed a book from a friend at 11 or 12, The World's Most Infamous Murderers. It was from the UK and I haven't been able to find it since. There was a little sidebar story about Fanny Adams' killing. Holy Cow! This Baker guy was inconceivably brazen, stupid, and evil. He didn't cover his tracks at all. Google it. Three years after I read that, I tried to write a story from his perspective to fulfill a weekly requirement of my high school English class. Mine stopped just short of the killing, for obvious reasons, and I got many details wrong I now realize after checking online. I learned how much fun it is to get into someone else's head and mess around, trying to make sense of the incomprehensible. I've found just about every one of those essays, but not that one.
Reading them scared me. They're great! And that's not bragging, just the opposite; I haven't gotten much better in almost 30 years! I know more about the world, obviously, but the mechanics, vocabulary, and power of ideas isn't much improved, if at all. What a shame that I'll be paying off my 12 years of higher education until retirement. And, as good as they are, few earned more than a B. Mr. K was a tough critic. I probably ought to thank him.
What is your writing process?
Basically, I follow Stephen King's advice: 1st draft of outline is private. That's tuned up a bit, and shared, feedback is digested. Then, the same process is repeated with the actual writing.
Something you might find interesting is that I'll pop into MS Excel at a few points along the way. It helps me plot individual characters' story arcs, as well as where episodes start and end in the larger context. Excel is the Office product that I know (and love) best. Even though I'm not taking advantage of its advanced functions, I find it gives me a different perspective; my artist's brain is calmed and focused by its sterility. Every quote and point in my dissertation was put into a spreadsheet first, which made organizing and indexing a breeze.
Scrivener also has some features that have driven my process. Being able to both color code and mark scenes with different icons based on characters involved and purpose is great. It helped me see that foreshadowing was happening in the right places, or know that explicit sex only accounts for 7% of TFT S1's content, for examples. MS Word is productivity software and in that, it's unparalleled. You can't do mail merges in Scrivener, it's just for writing. It's cheap ($45), stable, and makes you better. If you are serious about being an author, I can't think of a better investment.
My dissertation chair is an amazing editor. Among the many things she taught me is the importance of writing many drafts. A big paper in college might have been two iterations. Now it's a minimum of three, more likely four or five. Word counts tend to peak in the third.
Unfortunately, I struggle to just spit unfiltered words out, though. I'm not a perfectionist, but I do correct myself constantly, even in a first draft. I have an irrational fear that someone will see typos and believe me to be stupid. Here's a line I think I just coined the other day: "You don't move forward with the backspace button." If only I could follow my own advice.
One habit I recommend is to spend the last 10 minutes before bed organizing and phrasing a question or two in your head. It's important not to try to solve the problem at that hour, just define it. I find that sets me up to have the occasional breakthrough in my sleep. That is much less likely to happen if I watch something mindless on Netflix before or after turning the light off.
How do you approach cover design? That easy, and I don't benefit in any way from saying that. $500 bought me a contest with 140 designs from about 50 artists to choose from. It was a great learning experience. Zoe Shtorm must have clicked with the write up, because she was one of the brave first submitters, those who don't have any posted feedback to work with. But she was on the right track almost from the get go. Season 2's cover was just completed today (5/5/16), actually. This time, it was $220 to go 1-on-1 with her. A small gamble, I worried. No more. When you find that person who gets you, stick with her or him. (Still can't bring myself to use "them" as a gender-neutral, singular pronoun, American Dialect Society be darned. Soon, though.)
Mark Coker wrote in Smashwords' Style Guide, I think, that if you take the text off the cover, it should make a promise to the reader. That's my philosophy now. I'm sure you can get just as good for much less money, say, on, but, I don't have any aesthetic sense. I needed to see how different professional artists interpreted my words. Did I mention that I love both covers? I really do. That's important, too. Season 2 is still just a third-draft-outline right now, but I'll see its cover every time I open my laptop and get a kick in the butt.
What are your favorite books?
The Godfather and The Sicilian are tops. I love Puzo's style, but they're my favorites because they were the first real books I read in Spanish. I knew them back and forth in English, so I could read pages at a time without having to open the dictionary. This was a decade before Google was a name anyone would recognize.
U. of Chicago's paperback Spanish/English dictionary could almost be on this list. The list of idiomatic expressions is massive, and what a difference memorizing a quarter of that made for my ability to blend in.
The Power of One, by Bryce Courtenay. Tied with Papillon, by Henri Charrière. Read both when my wife was expecting our first. They're great stories and bring me back to the most exciting moments of my life.
The Education of Little Tree, Forrest Carter. Beautiful book. If you don't know the amazing back story, check it out. I think This American Life did an hour on it. (That and RadioLab are both huge influences on me.)
The Alienist, Caleb Carr. Brilliant.
On Writing, Stephen King. Even if you don't have author-ly aspirations, it's a great read.
Yesterday's Gone by Sean Platt and David Wright. The series lost my interest after the third season, but I read two more anyway. It was their first work, and it's cool to see how much they've grown. I think they invented the model I tried to copy, talking about "episodes" and "seasons" as though it was a TV series.
Write. Publish. Repeat. Platt, Truant, and Wright. These guys are unbelievable. Their Self -Publishing Podcast is free on iTunes and YouTube. If you want to be an indie, you best check it out. There's over 300 two-hour episodes, I believe. And monthly Q&A sessions in which they've answered every question I ever asked. And archives of blog posts and instructional behind the scenes looks at things a brand new indie would never get otherwise. They learned a lot of lessons the hard way and are happy to tell you all about it. For free. How can you not respect that?
Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
Where's not important. The bit about the pedophile priest (Last Day of the Rest of Your Life) was almost word for word true. It's a theme you'll see again in my work for all the reasons Tom wrestles with in that chapter. Everything in the psychiatric hospital was right from my real life, too, though 25 years out of date. (It's fiction, remember? And, come on! I'll be telling that story for the rest of my life.)
My hometown was wealthy, but my family was relatively poor until I hit high school, and then we got to be like everyone else. We kids had access to a lot of drugs. Keg parties were a weekly staple all through high school and beyond, and parents were as likely home for them as not. For many of us, it meant that we did our first experimenting when we were still somewhat sheltered from the worst of it. Many of the kids I grew up with didn't run wild when they got to college. They had gotten that out of their systems...for better or worse. Oh! Here's a lesson we all learned young: You're way underage, cops come to a party. What do you do? Run, if you're like most of the kids I was a freshman in college with. We didn't, though. Just put your beer down and control yourself. The law would make sure no one was being a jackass, and then split, leaving the keg! As a father, that terrifies me. But, yes, where and how I grew up influences my writing. The casualness around drugs, for example, that's a home thing.
What is your e-reading device of choice?
I prefer the non-back lit ones, but they are limited. Now, I have a 10" Android tablet with a great keyboard/case. As a reader, it's OK. That's not what I use it for though. I trashed a smart phone, got the insurance replacement, and proceeded to cram the SD card in there in such a way that it's never coming out and the phone doesn't work. Voila! It's now a small tablet--WiFi works great, and I'll never be distracted by an incoming call! That's the one I do most reviewing/editing on, because I can pick it up and type with my thumbs while jogging on a treadmill. (And that's a whole lot easier than pen and paper.)
Describe your desk
The one in my home office is cluttered. Add to that a furry pest who thinks me being home means I have a day planned for us, and I don't get much done. I write best at a grocery store or coffee shop where I have to pack all my stuff in and out every day, and don't trust the WiFi, so I stay on task. Also, being in public and knowing that people I know might see me before I see them helps me keep my head down and, at least, look busy.
What are you working on next?
I'll finish TFT S2 and then take a break from that serial until people ask me for more. (Dream big, right?) S3 is already partially outlined and I love it, so, I'll come back to The Family Trust. I also want to write something without sex, but still for adults. It will probably be set in Boston, less message-driven, and more just plain fun, like Stephen King. The problem with trying "to arouse and entertain, responsibly," is that if you miss the mark, you run the risk of actually doing harm. That's a lot of pressure.
One of my kids has shown some love for the craft, and they've both got great ideas. I didn't realize--duh!--that there would come a time when we would stop reading together daily because they had too much homework and read voraciously on their own. We plowed through many a massive series together, The Hobbit and LotR among them. They also know every clean part of TFT. (That's probably a short story's worth!) It would be fun to do something together.
I'm not a fan of YA or the trends it has started. Werewolves and vampires are about as fresh as Auto Tune. I blame Cher.
Hypocrisy is my thing, though, so I'll admit that I've been thinking of what might be one or two different books.
I want to do a more realistic take on zombies. Hold on, hold on, not like that. My zombies don't eat brains or shamble about. A pandemic sweeps the world. In many cases, the characteristic initial fever (when the illness is contagious) is often localized to the amygdala, causing sham (or real) rage. Now, picture our culture. You're driving down the road and some puny guy in a Prius is cursing at, and practically attacking, another driver with his car. He can't help it, he's sick, not himself. But the other guy, the one with the truck nuts hanging off the hitch, just won't give him a pass. He gets out of his F350 Dually (that he's never hauled anything but ass in), beats the dude up, infecting himself in the process. Now he's due for a volatile and dangerous few hours in a couple of days. And after that, here's the zombie part: he goes catatonic. In a matter of months, every family in the country is burdened with at least one member who is alive, but not alive. Bread winners aren't winning any bread. Once enough people become convinced that there is no recovery, there'd be lots of discussions about what to do with dad. (I'm thinking it might be fun for the illness to disproportionately afflict men, giving me a chance to write about a world in which women were calling the shots.) People would be caught between the pragmatic and what the preacher says. It could get political quickly, though, and I want to keep it a little lighter.
The other idea, and they may be related, is The 2nd Civil War, CWII. Drought in the South leads to fires. Crazy weather keeps the North lush, but they're not sharing water. Add a particularly obnoxious presidential candidate who causes a down ballot ass kicking for his team, drastically altering the balance of power nationwide. Suddenly, everything the losing party fears most becomes politically feasible. I'm not a fan of contemporary/topical stories, though I envy the rapid adapter/entrepreneur who capitalizes on such. I hope reality doesn't play out that way in 2016. Throw in a zombie plague and I've already got the first line, uttered by a middle-aged man not unlike myself, as he suits up as a soldier, squeezing his paunch into a blue uniform: "If I hear one more person say 'perfect storm'..."
Published 2016-07-22.
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