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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Author Interview ~ Mel Odom


In addition to being a father of five, grandfather to two, and writing several dozen novels, Mel Odom teaches at the University of Oklahoma’s Professional Writing program. He’s coached all of his sons in baseball and basketball, and been a consistent fan of his daughter’s softball and volleyball seasons. He blogs at www.melodom.blogspot.com, is a top 500 reviewer at www.amazon.com, and a frequent contributor at www.blogcritics.org. He’s reviewed hundreds of books and movies.

When not writing, you can find him online learning new software technology (mostly out of need and desperation because the cyberworld refuses to sit still) and in the garden. He and his wife, an elementary school teacher, try to go camping as often as possible in the summers with their 11 year old.

He’s always open to e-mail from readers with questions about books or writing in general. You can reach him at
mel@melodom.net.

Welcome to Novel Journey, Mel!

Thanks!

You are a best-selling, award winning author—not an easy task in this competitive market. Aside from great writing, to what do you credit this success?

All those people that buy and read the books!

I think I’ve been incredibly lucky over the years, but mostly I believe that God knew I wanted and needed a job that was creative, had flexible hours, and would allow me to stay close to my kids. I also have constantly felt there was something I could learn about my craft, so that keeps me humble and a constant student. I don’t think I know it all, and I don’t believe at this stage anyone can ever know everything about writing.

I have ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), which is both a blessing and a curse. The condition makes it hard for me to sit still for very long unless I’m totally absorbed in whatever I’m working on—and sometimes even being absorbed won’t keep me from being distracted. The best thing an ADHD person can do is to figure out where his or her passions lie and find a job that allows him or her to pursue that passion. Writing has always been my passion, and even when I have a project that doesn’t turn out to be successful, I still enjoy writing it and I learn from the process.

On the plus side of ADHD, my constantly shifting focus allows me to dig into new material all the time. The idea of doing the same thing over and over again would drive me to tears. I can’t tell you on how many occasions my wandering attention span has found something new to me and managed to bring a fistful of book and short story ideas to mind. Every time I’m presented was something that’s new to me, I can’t help twisting and turning ideas and information about it. I ask myself questions about whatever it is and can’t help but relate it to someone else who might have those questions and what their motivation might be to learn the answers. That’s what stories are about.

And I can’t discount my stubbornness. I’m a small town guy at heart. I grew up in a town of 300 people. I don’t like being told that I can’t do something or don’t qualify. When I was younger I would believe that for a while because I was shy and less confident than I am today, but eventually my desire to do something pushed me to figure out a way to accomplish a goal no one else thought I could do. Now I know that there’s always a way to do something and I trust myself enough to invest time and effort to find that way to do it.

Many authors struggle with only writing in one genre. Having been multi-published in different genres, what are your thoughts on this?

I really think writing is writing. It’s a craft you can learn if you desire to. Anyone who wants to write can figure out a way to write—if that person is willing to take the time, invest resources, and learn from mistakes. Therefore, if I can find a way to do one kind of writing, I’m already a step closer to learning a second way of writing. Martial arts and sports in general are a lot the same: there are only so many ways the body can move and respond to stimulus, and the emphasis changes with the endeavor the athlete is trying to make.

That’s the way it is with the writer also. A lot of authors I’ve talked to have developed tunnel vision and restricted their own abilities to write. They believe they can only write one thing, or that writing anything else would be too hard. Also, a lot of them are afraid to fail. I accept failing as part of the writing process, as part of any process. There hasn’t been anything I’ve done that I haven’t failed at in some respect or at sometime. Each one of those failures has taught me more than the successes I’ve had. When you have a success, people pat you on the head and tell you good job. Generally you will receive some kind of instruction, guidance, and direction during a failure. Failing is when learning is optimal if you can get over the initial sting quickly enough and remain open to helpful criticism.

I also love to read in several genres. I read across the board, science fiction, fantasy, suspense, mysteries, romance, westerns, and horror. I read adult books, teen books, and children’s books. Every writer you read has something to teach you if you want to be a writer. You have to learn to look beyond the entertainment value you’re getting and seek out the knowledge and skill that writer has to offer.

Everything I’ve written, I’m proud of. Every time I’ve written something outside of what readers may perceive as my “normal” genre (and many of them have different perceptions of me), I’ve learned something new about the craft that I could bring back to the books that I write. When you’re learning to do something you love, there is no wasted effort or wasted time.

I’ve got five children. Parents of multiple children can tell you that you can’t simply be the same parent to all children. Kids don’t work that way. Each of them has their own agenda, their own passions, and their own direction. And each one of the kids you raise will teach you something if you pay attention. No two relationships are the same. I’ve raised four sons and no two of them were alike. I’ve only got one daughter, but I’ve been told that they’re even more dissimilar than boys.

I think that people sometimes aren’t aware of how many different things they’re forced to learn. Once you realize how much you learn every day, you learn how to capitalize on that in whatever business, hobby, or passion you devote yourself to.

So, tell us a little about your latest release:

In BLOOD LINES, Shel McHenry’s relationship with his estranged father comes to the forefront when a murder investigation leads to a secret buried 40 years ago in Vietnam. I think it’s one of the best emotionally driven pieces I’ve ever written.

How did you come up with this story?

I’ve had Shel’s story in mind ever since I created the character. I knew he would be this big raw-boned guy from West Texas that had left home straight out of high school to get away from a bad relationship with his father, whom he didn’t understand. Then I set to work figuring out why that bad relationship had occurred.

I grew up during the Vietnam era, can remember watching names of the dead scroll across television every evening. I saw the family members fortunate enough to come back from that war and how it had changed them. Magazines in our school library showed pictures of US Army soldiers using flame throwers against enemy soldiers. You don’t emerge from that time period without carrying some kind of emotional scars.

I knew that Tyrel was old enough to have served in Vietnam. So I went in search of the reason why it had scarred him so deeply and what had left him feeling so fearful. The biggest thing I could come up with that would cause conflict within a character like Tyrel was fearing the loss of family. I can’t really talk about this much more without spoiling the story.

Tell us a little about your main character and how you developed him/her:

The relationship between fathers and sons continues to be of interest to me. If you go back and read my other works, you’ll see that theme is prevalent in many of my novels.

My relationship with my father was strained. I don’t remember him being around much when I was a kid. I was the oldest of five boys and drove my mother crazy because I was constantly wandering around the woods and town when I was four and five years old. She always had babies in arms and ended up reading to me every day to get me to stay home. We didn’t have video game systems or even TVs much of that time. And remember, I was an ADHD kid and this was before anyone had even diagnosed what that was.

I started working for my dad at the service station he managed when I was 13. I spent every summer working with them, sometimes as much as 50 hours a week, and I think most of that was because I was trying to get close to him and figure out what he was like. He was a Korean War vet, and that was a very hard war as well. He never talked about it, but I knew he had lost a friend over there from family members. They couldn’t talk about it much either because he’d never told them anything much beyond that.

When I was 22, after years of tension between my dad and my mother, he left the family. For seven years I didn’t know where he was. During that time I had three children and he was never there when they were born. He saw them a couple of times after that, but he never grew close to them or to me.

All of that is strange to me. I guess when I’m writing about fathers and sons, I’m trying to understand how a relationship that is supposed to be so natural can fall apart so badly. Having my own children helped. When you have a bad relationship with a parent, I’ve discovered that you often heal a lot of old wounds simply by living through your children’s childhoods with them.

Unfortunately, they don’t stay children. The tumultuous teenage years come soon after and everything you thought you knew oftentimes gets changed. I’m not as close to my oldest two boys as I would like to be, but they’re 26 years old and off discovering the world on their own. Thankfully, my daughter stays close, my nineteen-year-old still has lots of questions and needs even though he’s living apart, and my 11 year old is precocious and curious about everything.

Working with all those things within my own background, I’ve plagued Shel McHenry with my same confusion. And I made Tyrel a father I could understand. This is their story and it’s filled with action, heartache, misunderstanding, and a good ending. Early readers have told me this is one of the best books I’ve ever written and that the emotion echoed within them.

What did you enjoy most about writing this book? Least?

The hardest and easiest thing I wrote in this book is all the pain and confusion of the father/son relationship. I raked myself over the coals with this novel, sandpapered every nerve I had, trekked through every good and bad memory, and oftentimes was miserable and lost during the writing.

I had an agenda for Shel and Tyrel, but they often chose routes of their own. Often I was surprised by a scene turned out. But in the end I’m happy with what’s on the page. I gave myself answers I could live with, but the questions and the doubt and the fears will never completely go away.

Fathers and sons will remain strange. I think back on the Bible, about how a son is supposed to go forth from his father’s house to set up a life of his own. I always pictured that as a gentle progression, but maybe it isn’t always. Maybe the pain and the confusion is a byproduct of the separation that makes each learn to be strong enough to survive independently.

I think it’s harder on fathers because sons only leave one father. A father sometimes has to watch multiple sons leave, and it just doesn’t get any easier.

This is a military NCIS series. How did you conduct the research for this project?

I do lots of reading and web crawling. I’m a sponge when it comes to research, especially if it’s something I enjoy learning about. I love the CBS NCIS series with Mark Harmon. He’s one of my favorite actors and I actually get to meet him in person on the Fox Studios lot when he was still filming CHICAGO HOPE.

I also watch the History Channel and Discover Channel. A lot of the programs involve military action and hardware, and that always figures into military books. TRU TV has a lot of real life criminal investigation cases on it, and much of the police work involved in a NCIS investigation plays at the same way. I got the opportunity to watch a few actual NCIS agents working investigations on some of the shows, as well as a NCIS special agent afloat documentary aboard an aircraft carrier.

I do a lot of research on military, police investigation, and politics to write these books.

Do you have any favorite research sites or books that you refer to over and over?

Not really. I approach each book on its own and try to dig up new information each time. Readers often tend to be information junkies and trivia lovers. No matter how entertaining a story and characters may be, most readers still want to feel like they’ve learned something by the time they turn the final page of a book.

One of the things I do encourage for writers as well as readers is to read news from international sources in addition to the coverage here in the United States. It’s interesting to find the take some other country has current events in our country and on the international scene. And I discover a lot of story ideas in other countries that our news services don’t even cover. Although the media claims objectivity, news has become more and more subjective over the years because of advertisers and the public they cater to.

What does your writing space look like?

My writing space is cluttered. I generally have books scattered all over the place. While I’m writing on one book, I’m also researching others as well as digging into new material that has captured my interest and may turn into more stories.

I have bookshelves all along one wall, DVDs along another, and a large L-shaped desk that supports my desktop computer as well as my laptop. Yes, I use both computers at the same time as well. I write on one, research on another, and generally multitask a lot.

Do you put yourself into your books/characters?

I constantly put myself into my books and characters. I dig into my own views, questions, and troubles as I try to make sense of them. Writing is often cathartic, sometimes painful and sometimes joyful. But you don’t get one without the other.

All of the arts tend to be emotionally driven. Dancers, actors and actresses, artists, and musicians all dip into their own emotional wells for material, but I think writing is the loneliest craft anyone can pursue. None of the others of listed have to do what they do alone, and when they perform they have some kind of audience present. A writer works alone, inside his or her own head, then has to hand off the finished product to an unseen audience that may never contact him or her.

And by the time the product reaches the audience, a year or more has generally passed in the life of the writer. Even with the audience’s response, that writer is deeply enmeshed in a whole new set of problems and characters, once more toiling on something no one will see for months.

What message do you hope readers gain from your novel?

That they’re not alone. Everyone has problems. Everyone has fears. As I see it, one of the writer’s primary jobs is to expose and remind everyone of the commonalities we share as people. The rawest, most basic language, is emotion. This is the language a gifted writer communicates in.

Over the years, several people have written into me in response to a novel they had read that I’d written. They shared their own feelings with me and reminded me that I was not alone. It’s a good feeling and one that definitely should be shared.

Tell us what we have to look forward to in the future. What new projects are you working on?

At present, I’m working on new series ideas for Tyndale. I’ve also got a young adult series in the works.

Thanks for your time.

Best,
Mel

6 comments:

Gina Holmes said...

Good interview. Thanks for being with us!

Elizabeth Ludwig said...

It was such a pleasure getting to know a little about you. Thanks for visiting Novel Journey!

lynnrush said...

Great interview. What an eclectic choice of genres he reads. I fall into his description of Tunnel vision. I've always heard write what you know, write what you like to read, etc. I've only now just begun reading some chick lit and suspense....it's good!

This was interesting to read. He seems to be a great guy, juggling a lot of things and still doing well. Encouraging. I may have to check out his books. He's new to me.

Lori Benton said...

Mel is new to me too, but I'm so drawn to father/son conflicts and themes that I'm sure I'll check out his books, even though the genre is not one I usually read. I can't explain why that theme so resonates with me. I'm not a father, or a son (obviously).

@lynnrush: I read a good quote from writer Diana Gabaldon a few days ago, on our writers forum.

"You aren't limited by "writing what you know." There's empathy, and there's research. And above all, there's imagination."

Nicole said...

Great interview. Love the honesty.

Kim said...

I'm just getting to know about this very talented author! I've read one of his young adult novels, and Blood Lines was the first of his adult novels I've read - he really is an amazing writer!

Great interview! It's nice to learn more about the man who creates these stories!