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Mike Leach
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Mike is writing Lords of Circumstance, a novel set at the close of the Vietnam war.

mjl.jpg

Mike Leach, interviewed by Maggie Bishop

Give us your "elevator speech" about your current writing project.

Only a handful of Americans ever knew how close we came. Most of them are gone now, leaving no trace of their identities. Those who paid the ultimate price did so quietly, knowing that their story would never be revealed. Or so they thought. Lords of Circumstance is an action-adventure novel, set in the tumultuous close of the Vietnam era. It focuses on the lives of two young friends whose life circumstances lead them down very different paths. As adults, they are reunited to become a deterrent force in the fledgling world of genetically-altered biowarfare.

What brought you to Watauga County?

I completed my undergraduate degree at Guilford College in 1973 and my masters at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 1975. I spent time in the Blue Ridge Mountains on weekends and holidays and absolutely loved it. In 1994, my wife and I bought a modest second home in Foscoe, NC, in the small development of Sleepy Hollow. My wifes grandmother, Hazel Holden, was born about 200 yards from that house, though, strangely, we were completely unaware of that fact until after wed made the purchase. Hazel attended Foscoe Grammar School, which has long-since faded into history.

What is your approach to writing: that is, do you outline or not? Do you keep files and piles of notes?

My technical career with AT&T as a Senior Systems Manager demanded an incredible amount of advanced planning, documentation, and discipline. For more than a quarter century, I was "trapped" in the cold logic of large, advanced computer systems. But, it paid well and created a strong future for my family. I made a promise to myself back then that, when I retired, I would rely solely on instinct and spontaneous emotion to direct my writings, releasing myself from the confines of formal preparation and planning. So, I "write as it comes" and hope that will be sufficient. Im not quite to the point of James Joyces stream-of-consciousness style writing a sense of order and clarity still attracts me but, who knows? Maybe Ill get there eventually.

What are some of the tricks, pitfalls, etc. that you need to keep in mind when writing a novel/story?

A major pitfall for me has been wasting time worrying about what others will think of it. It makes more sense to just write it, and then seek the opinions of others.

What is it that kick starts a project for you: a character, a situation, or?

I like to start from actual experience, and then weave that knowledge into a fictional account. For example, the first chapter of Lords of Circumstance is based on fact, but everything that follows is pure fiction. Trusting your imagination to develop a story from such humble beginnings is not easy. You have to give up all self-doubt and just go for it! One of the first things I learned from my High Country Writer colleagues is that writing something of length is really hard work. They were right.

What started you in writing? (Was it always a dream of yours?)

In 1965, Miss Barbara L. Clark walked out of the University of Florida and into my life. Graduating "Magna Cum Laude" from a major university, she arrived at our small-town high school as a beginning teacher of advanced freshman English. She was heavy-set, with an angelic face that always resolved into an all-knowing Buddha smile whenever nothing remained to be said. I was thirteen and struggling -- she was twenty-three and brilliant. Seeing that I wandered in class, Miss Clark entered and examined my world, then developed a lesson plan for my life that radically departed from anything that Id heard of then, or since. For the next two years, she placed me in a cloakroom adjacent to the regular classroom. She required that I produce at least one piece of creative writing per day, in addition to picking up the mechanics of the subject matter being drilled into the students seated on the other side of the cloakroom door. This was not imprisonment. I was not a discipline problem, nor was I being punished for lack of focus. Instead, I was rerouted, redirected, and turned inward for the purpose of introspection, as opposed to drilling grammar and usage in the regular classroom with my peers. The upper half of the cloakroom door included paned sections of glass, so I could turn and look at the other students any time I wanted. And the room was not a closet – it was a cloakroom… a place where coats were hung and supplies were kept, about fifteen foot long and eight foot wide. It was a quiet shelter from the world, where I generated writings daily, placing them on her desk at the end of the period.

Days became weeks, weeks became months, and writings became anthologies. On her own time, in the days before word processors or personal computers, Miss Clark hand-typed literally everything I wrote. She purchased expensive, leather-bound binders, and had the titles that I had selected gold-embossed on their covers. She placed each page in its own clear vinyl sleeve, as if they were important, and eventually presented them to me as a gift. It was the first time in my life that I felt special.

A year or so into this period, I received an official-looking letter in the mail. It arrived in a business envelope, with my name and address typed on it by someone who knew what he or she was doing. At that age, I rarely received anything in the mail, so this letter stood out. I studied its exterior, transfixed by its air of formality, wondering how my name came to be upon it. After several minutes, I opened it. Inside was a professionally-typed letter and three checks; two for twenty-five dollars and one for fifty. To understand what that meant in the mid-1960s, youd have to add another zero to each number, and imagine receiving it, with no prior warning, when you were only fourteen, and your entire wardrobe consisted of hand-me-down clothing from distant cousins. Apparently, unbeknownst to me, Miss Clark had submitted three of what she considered to be my best writings to a nationally-recognized magazine. Incredibly, all three were published, and payment ensued.

I was such a butthead then I remember acting indignant toward her the next day because she had failed to ask my permission before doing this. She returned only that all-knowing Buddha smile that I mentioned earlier. I cashed the checks that afternoon and bought her a rose.

What keeps you writing? What inspires you?

The possibility of being completely surprised by what comes out of your own head.

What movie hero is most like the person you wish you were?

James Bond. (Oh, come on! Dont we all wish we could be so completely capable of doing the impossible?)

The biggest enemy of creativity is ...

believing that there are limits to your abilities.

Who and/or what are your major influences?

Literary figures = Shakespeare, Hemingway, Faulkner and Albert Camus.

Modern writers = Ken Follet, Clive Cussler and Charles Frazier.

My best ideas come to me at unexpected moments, like when Im ...

not quite awake, in the half-light of morning, just ahead of consciousness.

Whats always on your desk?

Besides dust? Books, a laptop computer, and family pictures.

What three accomplishments are you most proud of?

Gail, Wendy and Paige my lovely wife and two beautiful daughters. Dont make the mistake of asking me about them youll miss lunch!

No one is better than I am when it comes to ...

procrastination.

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