Wednesday, March 2, 2022


My latest book, THE CURIOUS CASE OF SEAMAN GARBER, is a novel of discovery and recognition. In classical literary terms, it is an anagnorisis. That is, the true nature or significance of the action of the novel becomes clear only through a sequence of revelations that ultimately lay bare the true identity of a major character in the story—in this case the eponymous character Seaman Garber.

The difficulty in writing a novel of discovery lies in sustaining reader engagement from the moment of the story’s inciting incident to the initial revelation, and from there through the subsequent action that propels the reader to the next discovery and the next until he/she, along with the protagonist, achieves recognition of the true nature of what has been taking place in the story. In short, the story itself must be compelling, aside from the revelations. In addition, the revelations must arise organically from the plot and be increasingly significant to the storyline.

The protagonist in my novel is eleven-year-old Seth Roberson. At the outset of the story, he makes it his mission to see that the death of Vietnam War veteran Seaman Garber, whose body has gone unclaimed, does not go unacknowledged. As a result of Seth’s quest, more and more is revealed about Garber’s mysterious death and his even more mysterious life. But it is only when Seaman Garber’s true identity is revealed that Seth, along with the reader, recognizes the true nature of what has been taking place in the story.

How successful I’ve been in engaging the reader in my story and keeping him/her engaged by stoking intrigue with each successive discovery, and whether with the final reveal I achieve the hoped for emotional response from the reader, can only be judged by the reader feedback I get.

THE CURIOUS CASE OF SEAMAN GARBER is now available in both print and Kindle versions on The digital version for non-Kindle readers is also available online via Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and other online bookstores.

Saturday, May 1, 2021

My San Antonio Childhood: A Memoir by Michael L. Hall—a review

Click here to learn more about
this book and its author

I’ve always been suspicious of published memoirs. So often they’re written by celebrities—movie stars, politicians, pro athletes—bent on self-promotion. Or they recount with melodramatic flair some remarkable, often tragic aspect of the author’s life. Michael L. Hall is not a celebrity and his life, as he himself muses, “has been only ordinary,” comic even, in that during his childhood he experienced “few tragic or even sad moments.” But while there may be little remarkable about Hall’s childhood, what is remarkable is his ability to look back on it and see how the people and events of his early life played a critical role in forging the man he ultimately became.

“What I have actually done,” Hall says of his memoir, “is simply tell some stories.” Yet the stories he tells, rich in detail and loaded with insight, are at once unique to his childhood and universal in theme: school, church, work, family and friends—and, yes, girlfriends—and more. These stories are relatable because they speak to the sometimes mundane, sometimes comic, sometimes poignant moments that happen in every person’s life. And the heartfelt lessons Hall draws from reflecting on his childhood experiences are bound to resonate with those of us who look back on our youth with the weighty ambivalence that resides at the confluence of nostalgia and regret.

It isn’t lost on me that Hall’s memoir presents only a narrow slice of Americana—a portrait of a boy who grew up in the 50’s and 60’s in a suburban, working-class neighborhood in central Texas, the child of loving and supportive parents, in a time when children were allowed to be children. Not exactly the stuff of Leave It to Beaver, but not far removed either.

So why should anyone reared in a dissimilar culture, under less fortunate circumstances care to read Hall’s recollections? For me the answer is this: My San Antonio Childhood: A Memoir, for all its unassuming narrative charm is, at its core, a thought-provoking examination of the roots of character. And who can’t relate to that?

Wednesday, December 30, 2020




Regarding Autobiographical Fiction

I have a friend who writes memoir and does it very well. He tried his hand at writing fiction, he told me, but found that his stories were “too close to home.” So he sticks with memoir.

I get it. My first novel, written in my late 20’s, was highly autobiographical. It was to be my “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”—or, in my case, a portrait of the theology school dropout, which was my ignominious fate. But, as with my friend’s efforts at writing autobiographical fiction, the story was “too close to home”—that is, it closely aligned in plot and setting with the actual details of my life. As a result, it lacked imagination—i.e., it was dull. So dull that I eventually got bored with it myself and sent it to never-to-be-published-land.

But that failed effort showed me that if I was going to write compelling fiction I had to look beyond my own personal experience for storylines. So for my second attempt at novel writing, I tried something far removed from autobiography: a farce called “The Day the Marines Invaded Disneyland.” It was about a military exercise gone awry when, after a mix-up in target coordinates, a contingent of US Marines on a mock mission to take and hold a strategic location accidentally lands via helicopter in the parking lot of Disneyland. The plot was indeed imaginative and fun, but the setting—Disneyland—was problematic in terms of branding infringement. I changed the setting to a generic theme park named WonderWorld, but the story didn’t hold together as well after that and I finally gave up on it.

Years and many fits and starts later, I celebrated my first published novel, “Tamara’s Child.” It narrates the misadventures of a homeless pregnant teenager determined to make a new and better life for herself and her child, only to fall victim to some loathsome characters intent on stealing her baby from her. The idea for the novel came from my work at our local high school with at-risk youth. The storyline, however, was anything but autobiographical—or so I thought. Not long after the novel was published, I received a note from a reader—someone who had known me for many years, stretching from my youth into adulthood. “It struck me,” she said, “how much of this novel comes from your own personal experience.”

I was taken aback by this comment. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized she was right. As a mature male, it was impossible for me to have experienced what 16-year-old Tamara Ames went through in this novel. But there were indeed things in my and my family’s personal history that paralleled Tamara’s experiences. Consciously or subconsciously, I had drawn from these things as I imagined the story. The novel was autobiographical, after all.

I have since come to the not-so-brilliant conclusion that all fiction has some basis in autobiography. Although one’s own personal experiences may not contain enough essence to make for a compelling narrative, they can be a launching pad for imaginative stories that are captivating while also being true to life.

So how should one view autobiography when it comes to writing fiction? I believe John Irving said it best in his novel “The World According to Garp,” when he relates his novelist-protagonist T.S. Garp’s response to the dreaded question of how much of his writing is true—that is, based on personal experience:

… Garp would say that the autobiographical basis—if there was one—was the least interesting level on which to read a novel… (The) art of fiction was the act of imagining truly… Memories and personal histories—“all the recollected traumas of our unmemorable lives”—were suspicious models for fiction… Fiction has to be better made than life...

“Tell me anything that’s ever happened to you,” Garp told an interviewer once, “and I can improve upon the story; I can make the details better than they were.”

That’s what I try to do in my fiction—make the details of real life better than they were, whether it’s the details of my life or someone else’s life I am drawing from when telling my story.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

An IPPY Award for The Water Tower Club

The 2019 Independent Publisher Book Awards were recently announced. My new novel, The Water Tower Club, was awarded a Bronze Medal in the Popular Fiction category.

Thank you, Independent Publisher, for this honor!

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Fiction as "Experiments in Life"

Nineteenth century novelist George Eliot characterized her fiction as “experiments in life.” In my high school days, Eliot’s fiction was required reading. If I remember correctly, I had to read Silas Marner, and for me it was an experiment in life all right—an experiment in the agony of writing a book report.

But I’ve always liked George Eliot’s characterization of fiction as “experiments in life.” I like it because I think it comes as close as anything to describing what fiction writing is all about. Fiction writers create a place in time—that is, a setting. They populate that setting with human characters or creatures with humanlike characteristics that they prod into action. Then they keep the action going by giving their characters problems to solve, goals to meet, obstacles to overcome, stakes to play for, crises to face. And along the way, the characters reveal themselves to the readers. Through their words and actions, the characters show who they are. They show who they are in the same way that we inhabitants of this so-called “real world”—show who we are through our words and actions.

That’s my sense of what George Eliot meant when she characterized her work as “experiments in life.” Fiction, at its best, reflects the essence of the human experience. For me (and, I would say, for all of us) every day, every moment of one’s existence, is an experiment in living in a particular setting—that is, in a time and place and circumstance that is unique to the individual. Good fiction mirrors life. That’s why it can be said that a good story allows you to experience life vicariously—because you put yourself in the place of the characters. Fiction and life become intertwined.

I’m often asked “How much of your fiction comes from your own personal experience and how much is ‘made up’?” The answer to that question for me—and I think for all fiction writers—is this: Some of the fiction I write comes from my own personal experience, but all of it is made up.

If that sounds like a contradiction, consider this. In his novel The World According to Garp, John Irving has his protagonist, Garp, who is a writer, say this: “Tell me anything that’s ever happened to you . . . and I can improve upon the story; I can make the details better than they were.”

That’s what fiction writers do—or, at least, try to do—make their stories more compelling, more emotive than real life. When you read a book or see a movie that says “based on a true story,” it means that the writer has taken the story and enhanced it by filling in the details and giving the storyline a dramatic arc. The writer has taken dramatic license with the story; he/she has fudged the facts to make the story more compelling.

Because, unless one is writing autobiography, one’s own personal experience is merely a launching pad for storytelling that should eventually soar well beyond the limitations of personal experience. George Eliot’s “experiments in life” are a perfect example of this.