This time I talked to author Michael Loyd Gray who grew up in a university town south of Chicago, but he was born in a southern state, Arkansas, to southern parents, and they moved north when he was a baby. That made him mostly northern with a trace of the rebel. Maybe it’s that sliver of rebel that helped shaped his imagination enough to become a storyteller. And that’s certainly what he has come to see himself as – a storyteller. And a teacher. The two are quite compatible. He is full-time online English faculty for a university and has written six novels.
As a boy, though, he wanted to be a football coach and he still loves football. He is a big Chicago Bears fan. He also wanted to be an oceanographer at one point, after watching Jacques Cousteau on television, but he can’t really do math or physics, so that was out. And at some point he realized he was a daydreamer who could write in complete sentences. Writing always came easy for him and he earned a journalism degree from the University of Illinois. Michael tried ten years as a journalist for several newspapers, but always ran into editors who stripped the color out of stories. And he always wanted to add more color to writing than newspaper journalism will permit. So, Michael went to graduate school at Western Michigan University, earned a MFA, and started writing novels. Likely the best decision he ever made.
Books & Writing: When did you discover your passion for writing?
Michael Loyd Gray: Two answers are needed here: first, I discovered I could write well as early as junior high school. I just had the knack for it and I could spell, too. Writing a sentence was not a problem for me as a kid as it seems to be for so many kids now. That may be because I read a lot of books back then and we didn’t have cell phones and computer games to help drain the brains right out of our heads. Now, as for when passion came into the equation, that would have been later, when I had been writing for newspapers and I realized I was never going to have freedom to tell stories that explored the inner lives of people. I realized then that that was what I really wanted to do and that only fiction would allow me to do it the way I wanted to.
Books & Writing: Where did you get the inspiration from to write your first book?
Michael Loyd Gray: The first novel I wrote was self-published and uneven and called Confederate Nation. It was an attempt to fictionalize America as being divided into two countries, the northern states and the Confederacy. The premise was that the Confederacy won the Civil War and established a country. And I put Elvis Presley in it because I always loved Elvis. Technically that was my first book, though mostly it was a learning experience. It helped me better understand how to write a novel and then I wrote my true first novel, Well Deserved, which won the 2008 Sol Books Prose Series Prize. As for what inspired Well Deserved, I can only say that it was a desire to create people whose lives are intertwined, whose lives intersect, and to see how shared events would affect them and would change them.
Books & Writing: What is your last published book Not Famous Anymore, about?
Michael Loyd Gray: Not Famous Anymore, which was awarded a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation, is maybe my attempt to understand celebrity. It’s about an actor, Elliott Adrian, who isn’t a great actor but has made a lot of money at it – think Arnold Schwarzenegger without the muscles and Austrian accent. But Elliott, who came from a small town in Illinois, drinks too much and hits bottom in Hollywood. He goes to rehab and emerges literally not wanting to be famous anymore and so he flees Hollywood to work his way back to tiny Argus, Illinois. The novel came partly from my curiosity about what it would be like to put the American Dream in reverse – fleeing Hollywood and fame instead of perpetuating the celebrity lifestyle. A few years ago I wrote a screenplay version of Not Famous Anymore.
Books & Writing: Is the main character Elliott Adrian based on people you know?
Michael Loyd Gray: No, I don’t believe Elliott is based on anyone at all. Often a character in fiction does spring to life from someone we know or have met, but I suspect Elliott is complete fabrication. Since I don’t know any celebrities that are actors, there was really no real person to base him on or to suggest Elliott. And you don’t really want your characters to be much like someone you know. The goal is to make these people up and give them lives of their own. In Well Deserved one of my characters sells marijuana from a trailer in the woods. Many years ago I actually knew someone who sold marijuana from a trailer, but from there the similarities end.
Books & Writing: I understand you are working on a new book at the moment called “King Biscuit”. Was there a reason why you decided to write it for young adults?
Michael Loyd Gray: King Biscuit is actually a novel I wrote after Well Deserved. That would have been about five years ago. It’s in production now and will be out in late spring or so, I’m told, from Sol Books. I’ve seen the mock up of the cover and I like it. But I didn’t write it as a young adult novel at all. The publisher classifies it as young adult because the main character, Billy Ray Fleener, is seventeen. I wanted to tell a story about someone leaving home in 1966 at a young age and discovering some of the world. I still don’t see it as young adult. I think it’s a story for anyone, but as long as people get to read it I guess I don’t care too much how it’s classified. Believe me, it’s not a story about eating grilled cheese sandwiches in the high school cafeteria – there’s sex, drugs and rock and roll in it. And Elvis Presley is in it, too.
Books & Writing: If you could be one of your characters for a day, who would you be and why?
Michael Loyd Gray: Which character? Several would be appealing – Nick Spencer in Fast Eddie. Evan Archer in Blue Sparta. But I’m also fond of a character who figures prominently in Well Deserved and The Last Stop – Art Millage. Art is the police chief of tiny Argus, Illinois. Now, I would make a lousy cop. I don’t think I’m built for that. But I like Art Millage very much. He is a very good man with a well-defined personal code of conduct and it would be interesting to see the world through his eyes for a day.
Books & Writing: What is the last book you read?
Michael Loyd Gray: The last book I read was Life – Keith Richards’ autobiography. As a huge Rolling Stones fan, I really enjoyed it. Keith Richards may not be a role model to some, but I love the guy and find him fascinating. These days I actually avoid novels because I don’t want to be influenced by anyone while writing. So, when I read for pleasure I tend to read about the American Civil War. I have likely read nearly forty or fifty books on the Civil War and it’s a fascinating subject about one of the most significant events to happen to this country. That war shaped this nation and improved it – though we have conservative presidential candidates now who would love to take America back to the Confederacy. As for fiction, I did re-read Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night last year on a plane to Los Angeles. I admire the pure talent Fitzgerald had. And I don’t write like he did and so I don’t worry that much about being influenced by him and can just enjoy a story being told by a master. I plan to re-read The Great Gatsby soon.
Books & Writing: Where can people go and read your work?
Michael Loyd Gray: People can get Well Deserved and Not Famous Anymore at amazon.com, for example. Well Deserved can be ordered from Sol Books and Not Famous Anymore can be ordered from HenschelHAUS. My new agent, Pauline Vilain in The Netherlands, represents three of my unpublished novels as well as foreign rights to Well Deserved and Not Famous Anymore. And the Not Famous Anymore screenplay.
Books & Writing: Which writer(s) inspires you?
Michael Loyd Gray: My influences are clear enough to me. Hemingway was the first. He worked so hard to make his writing the way he wanted it and I have always admired that. I can read his work anytime and still love it, but I have my own style and voice. And my own subjects. I was also influenced to some degree by Bobbie Anne Mason, Ellen Gilchrist, and Raymond Carver. And Charles Portis. His Norwood is one of my favorite novels. Other writers, like Fitzgerald, didn’t influence me technically so much as they were writers I admired and they kept me interested in writing.
Books & Writing: Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?
Michael Loyd Gray: This is usually the hardest question because writing is solitary and not a team sport. But I would suggest that to make it as a writer requires persistence. You can’t ever give up. I kept at it for years before I began to have stories accepted, and then a novel, and then an agent. I use as a mantra a line from a Tom Petty song: “You can stand me up at the gates of hell but I won’t back down.” Overnight success as a writer is a fantasy. My overnight success is going on twenty years now – but I didn’t give up. If you have some talent, if you have some imagination and a story to tell, then don’t give up. Never.
Below is an excerpt from his book "Not Famous Anymore".
All I asked for was a hand job. You’d think I’d asked for the world.
“You’re not Elvis,” Beverly said. “Elliott, do you think you’re Elvis?”
Just a good, solid hand job. Firm grip. Decent stroke. A little palm grease.
“Do I think I’m Elvis?” I pondered a moment. “No, but I bet Elvis could have gotten a hand job.”
Beverly Madigan was my personal assistant. That’s not the same as my agent. I wouldn’t ask my agent for a hand job. That’s just not done. And besides, I’m pretty sure he would have said no.
“Elvis was loveable, Elliott.” She didn’t look up from her laptop. “Elvis had charm. If Elvis got hand jobs it was because someone wanted to. Not because he was bored.”
I was bored right down to the short and curlies.
“Maybe so, Bev. But Elvis probably would have asked for the whole taco.”
“Do you think?” she said. “Well, he would have done it with more class. And please don’t call it a taco, Elliott. That’s crude.”
“Sorry. I thought it had flair. Not so much, I guess.”
Beverly squinted at me the way you might squint at a lizard climbing a screen door. “You don’t really want a hand job, Elliott. You just want attention.”
“No, I want a hand job. Attention is overrated. Hand jobs aren’t.”
Beverly was a dull and slack-jawed blonde, but pretty, and she had large hands for a woman. I’d eyed those hands more than once. Vise grips.
“I could ask one of the maids,” she said. “How about the limo driver?”
“He’s a he, Bev. Not my type.”
“He’s also gay,” she said. “I’m sure he’d be happy to oblige.”
“No, thanks. But I appreciate the offer. You’re thoughtful.”
“Pretty picky for a guy desperate for a hand job, Elliott.”
“I’m not desperate.”
“Then have you considered just handling it yourself?”
She sure had a tart tongue. “That takes all the fun out of it, Bev.”
“Get a grip, Elliott.”
“Good one. A real zinger. I’m impressed. Will you watch and talk dirty to me?”
“Just pretend you’re me and talk dirty to yourself. C’mon, Elliott, you’re an actor.”
“So they tell me.”