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Thursday, February 3, 2011

Humans Are More Alike Than Different: An Interview With Michael Dymmoch

Michael Allen Dymmoch will be the Local Guest of Honor for Love Is Murder 2011, held in Chicago, on Feb. 4-6. For more information, go to Love Is Murder.

1. I know that Michael Allen isn’t your given name. Tell us about why you decided to create your own identity and how that influences you as a writer who creates identities on paper.

I prefer not to answer questions about my name beyond saying that your real name is the one you make for yourself.

2. In your Jack Caleb and John Thinnes Mystery series, Jack is a fascinating character who is unusually candid about being a gay man. He even wishes at one point that he felt lust for a woman. You also explore his concerns about dating. How do you keep that candor? What skill do you call upon as a writer to find that ringing honesty?

Write what you know is a cliché because it's true. I would amend it to add or what you can learn. We're all able enjoy stories about people of different genders, times, and orientations precisely because humans are more alike than different in our fears, longings and aspirations--we all want love and work. Bringing Caleb to life was simply a matter of research applied to my own experiences. I know what it's like to be in love, to miss someone so much it hurts, to obsessively desire a man, to dread dating. Therefore, so does Caleb. Caleb is a good shrink because he knows himself. He's open about his sexual identity because he understands openness to be a position of power, and he knows that remaining in the closet invites misunderstanding and blackmail.

3. In the same series, moving in concert with the plot, the characters have these scenes that are mini-short stories, complete with other characters, conflict and resolution. For example, John breaks into his in-laws’ car in such a way that it’s a rebuke to their classism. How do you construct these interludes?

I try to tell the character's story in a way that integrates it into the larger narrative. Some readers (and reviewers) don't get that life is a collections of short stories connected by the memory of the person whose experiences they are. Sometimes the memories are retrieved intentionally and in chronological order, sometimes evoked at random by external stimuli.

How do they come to you? How do you position them so they don’t slow the action down?

Again, writers use their own experiences. I've encountered people like Thinnes' in-laws and his supervisor, Rossi. One of the best things about being a writer is that you can kill people who piss you off without ending up in prison. Or you can put them into situations that show just how badly they behave without getting yourself fired. Also writers steal stories and transform them into tales of their own, which--as Stan Brakhage pointed out--is not unlike taking someone's car, slapping on a new coat of paint and different license plates, and having it for yourself. I love stories. I squeeze small stories into larger ones for the fun of it and because vignettes illustrate character in a way that just saying "Thinnes is a good guy and a cynic" can't.

As for not slowing the action, the story is the thing. As long as they don't derail the story, short stories within the main are like scenic detours in the general direction of your destination.

4. “Jack” is a nickname for “John.” Clearly, names are very important to you. Was there some reason you gave these two very different men the same name? Do they represent different sides of masculinity—the more traditional expectations and the less accepted ones?

Actually, I didn't think all that carefully about those characters' names. Caleb's nickname is Jack because his initials are JAC- Jack is simply the popular spelling of the phonetic pronunciation. The Man Who Understood Cats was originally written as a screenplay which I novelized when I couldn't interest anyone in the script. It was intended to be a cop/buddy film, so the cop was a given--straight, middle class, modestly educated. Caleb became rich, well educated, a shrink, and gay because that combination of characteristics seemed most likely to create conflict--the essence of story. Also I was well educated in the sciences and could research rich and gay. If I'd envisioned a series, I probably wouldn't have been so ambitious.

5.You write with such a sure sense of being a Chicago insider. I’m thinking about the mallard that the police protected and how the building codes invite graft. Tell us about your love of the Windy City and how you collect such anecdotes/information. (I know you’ve been through a citizen’s academy, so maybe tell us about that?)

Stephen King taught me the trick of adding just enough detail to let the reader fill in the rest. Living in Chicago helps, but newspaper and TV coverage of the city (especially by Chicago Tonight and other great WTTW programs), are a godsend. (A duck actually did hatch her eggs at Western & Belmont, protected by cops and crime-scene tape, and covered by several local TV stations.) I also get material from walking and driving around the city and riding the CTA--stuff you can't make up (like the time a motorman stopped his Brown line train to jump out and extinguish a fire on the tracks. I've got pictures!) Police Departments have also been marvelously helpful. Once they're sure you're on the level, not crazy or a crook, and you'll keep it off the record when requested, they're usually happy to share their tales. And cops are great story-tellers. Most departments also have a public relations office or officer. Northbrook's Michael Green spent an hour telling me how his Department worked, And Pat Camden of Chicago PD's News Affairs spent two hours talking to me, then hooked me up with an arson investigator who answered questions I never thought to ask. I've also attended autopsies; and seminars on gunshot and stab wounds, toxicology and forensic science--all of them given by people with great stores to steal --er, tell.

6. “Writers say that what sets them apart from nonwriters is a sense of isolation, and a feeling of being different from others, of always standing apart, observing.” Talk about that. Explain how you stand apart and whether you’ve cultivated that sense of distance.

Another cliché firmly grounded in fact. I always felt isolated and different as a kid--an ugly duckling. When I discovered the writing community, it was obvious to me that I'd been flying with the wrong flock.

7. MIA, your most recent book, is entirely different in tone from Death in West Wheeling and the Caleb/Thinnes series. It’s a combination coming of age novel and a love story. You clearly don’t worry about genre-hopping. What inspired you to write MIA?

I saw an M.I.A. bumper sticker on an old rusty car driven by a man too young to be a Vietnam vet or the son of one. I wondered about the sticker--Did it come with the car? Was a relative M.I.A.? Was the young driver a history buff? Since I couldn't catch up to him to ask, I made up my own story.

An earlier novel was also inspired by a motorist. Driving to work one morning--late as usual, I nearly collided with a car backing out of a driveway hell bent for election. Being a mystery writer, I immediately decided the driver must have committed a murder to be in such a hurry so early in the day. That--considerably embroidered--became the opening sequence of The Fall.

Also, you have nearly the same line in MIA as you have in The Death of Blue Mountain Cat. “The way humans is made, you can’t take care of somethin’ without comin’ to love it or hate it.” (MIA) “Humans can’t remain neutral about anything they give their time or labor to. Whatever we take care of, we either come to love or hate.” (The Death of Blue Mountain Cat) Tell us about why this idea resonates with you.

I guess I just find it to be one of those endearing (or maddening) facts about human beings that fit into both novels (as well as one I'm working on now).

How does a writer use this idea to develop character?

As you illustrated in the above quotes (by telling) or by showing how caring for something brings the character to love it.

8. You reference Groundhog Day in Death in West Wheeling, and Terminator and Starman to name just a few in The Death of Blue Mountain Cat. Are you a big movie fan? How have they shaped your work as an author?

Big fan of Shakespeare's tragedies and many dramatic movies and police series. Screenplays are like short stories and they can be very good outlines for novels if you understand the difference between showing and telling. Screenplays also have a structure that helps keep the story from meandering off point.


Michael Dymmoch was born in Illinois and grew up in a suburb northwest of Kentucky. As a child she kept a large number of small vertebrates for pets and aspired to become a snake charmer, Indian chief or veterinarian. She was precluded from realizing the former ambitions by a lack of charm and Indian ancestry and from the achieving the latter profession by poor grades in calculus and physics. This made her angry enough to kill. Fortunately, before committing mayhem, she stumbled across a book titled Maybe You Should Write a Book and was persuaded to sublimate her felonious fantasies. Moving to Chicago gave Michael additional incentives to harm individuals who piss her off. On paper of course. Author of nine novels, Michael Dymmoch has served as president and secretary of the Midwest chapter of Mystery Writers of America, and newsletter editor for the Chicagoland chapter of Sisters in Crime. Michael is a Chicago resident and charter member of the Chicago Mystery blog, The Outfit Collective

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